VILNIUS - The Lithuanian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee has decided that Lithuania should support Italy in its appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. Earlier, the court stated that displaying crucifixes in Italian classrooms violates parents’ rights to secular education. Italy asked Lithuania to support its appeal to the same court. Two other predominantly Catholic countries, Poland and Slovakia, have already expressed their support to Italy. The case caused some controversy among Lithuania’s politicians.
On Nov. 4, 2009, the court in Strasbourg found that the presence of a crucifix in the classroom could be “disturbing for pupils who practiced other religions or were atheists.”
The seven judges ruling on the case added that crucifixes in the classroom also restricted the “right of children to believe or not to believe.”
The case was brought to the European Human Rights Court by Finnish-born Soile Lautsi, a mother of two children living near the Italian town of Padua, on the grounds that her children were being influenced by having to attend a school that had crucifixes in every room.
Ruling that this contradicted the separation of Church and state in Italy, the court awarded her 5,000 euros in damages. The court did not, however, order the Italian authorities to remove the crucifixes, and the Italian government said that it would appeal to the European Court of Human Rights’ Grand Chamber.
The court’s ruling provoked protests from the Vatican as well as from Italian politicians of all colors, with the exception of the far left. The Italian Roman Catholic Bishops Conference stated that the verdict was “one sided and ideological,” and “evokes sadness and bewilderment.”
On Jan. 13, the Lithuanian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee decided that Lithuania should back Italy in its appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, though five out of twelve members of the committee stated that Lithuania should not interfere in this case.
“The crucifix does not influence the choice of young persons. It is just a 1,000-year long tradition,” Audronius Azubalis, chairman of the committee and MP of the Homeland Union - Lithuanian Christian Democrats, said, supporting Italy’s appeal.
“Accenting symbols of one confession contradicts democracy. It would be better to allow all symbols of all religions which pupils are practicing, or just avoid hanging such symbols at all,” said Justinas Karosas, Social Democrat MP, who opposed Lithuania’s interfering into the case.
“It can be that later we’ll get a protest against the Christmas tree. There was already such a precedent in an airport in the U.S.,” said Vygantas Malinauskas, representative of the Lithuanian Bishops’ Conference.
The practice related to this case is very different throughout Europe. There are crucifixes in almost every classroom in Italy. All religious symbols of all religions are banned in state schools of France. In Lithuania, pupils and their parents can avoid seeing crucifixes in classrooms if they wish - crucifixes can be found only in special classrooms which are designed for lessons of religion, lessons which are not obligatory, in the state schools as well as in classrooms of Catholic schools. It means that Lithuanian practice does not contradict to the ruling of the court in Strasbourg.
The debate over the crucifix issue shows one big problem of the Lithuanian establishment - the lack of knowledge about the outside world. During a discussion on Lithuanian public radio on Jan. 15, Bishop Jonas Ivanauskas and political analyst Vytautas Daujotis kept attacking the European Union because of the crucifix issue. However, this has nothing to do with the EU. The decision on crucifixes was a decision made in the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, which was set up by the Council of Europe. It has 47 members (including, for example, Russia, Bosnia and Azerbaijan). This is not an EU institution at all. It is an intergovernmental organization to protect human rights. The biggest number of cases discussed in the court comes from Russia, where the situation on human rights is not exemplary. Regardless, Russia obeys verdicts of the court.
The lack of knowledge is a problem among the Lithuanian elite. Recently, lrytas.lt, Internet site of the daily Lietuvos Rytas, published secretly recorded private talks of Economy Minister Dainius Kreivys where he states that he does not know what the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is, and then describes it as “a dubious organization.” The Assembly is one of the organs of the Council of Europe. Knowledge about the EU is not perfect either among top Lithuanian politicians. President Dalia Grybauskaite, talking on Lithuanian public TV and on radio on Jan. 12, stated that EU citizenship is not mentioned in the EU treaties and a Lithuanian citizen has no right to ask for help from other EU embassies in, for example, Australia, where Lithuania has no embassy of its own. The concept of European citizenship is enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty, which established the European Community and guarantees access to another EU member state’s diplomatic mission outside the EU if one’s own member state is not represented there.