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  • April 2017 : Easter Blessings on the State School Grounds in Italy

It is legitimate to offer religious blessings at public schools. This is now established by the decision of the Italian Council of State (CoS), which has reversed the decision of the Administrative regional tribunal of Emilia-Romagna (TAR Emilia-Romagna). One year ago, this tribunal had suspended the decision of the 16 board members of Giosuè Carducci Elementary School of Bologna, who had agreed to let a Roman Catholic priest offer an Easter prayer at their public school.
From a general point of view, the CoS states that the blessing cannot in any way affect the progress of public teaching and school life. As far as the case of Carducci Elementary School is concerned, the religious rite is provided for activities other than official ones. For these reasons, the blessing cannot infringe, directly or indirectly, the religious freedom of those who, while belonging to the same school community, do not belong to Catholicism : if they fear to be harmed by these religious rites, they can choose not to attend them.
In addition, the CoS affirms that the blessing is not in contrast with the supreme principle of secularism (principi supremo di laicità). As the Italian constitutional court stated in a historical decision of 1989 (n° 203), this principle does not imply indifference towards religions, but equidistance and impartiality towards the different religious denominations. In other words, the supreme principle of laicità is based on the State’s positive attitude towards all religious communities. That is the point, have replied the members of the school community who disagree with the CoS’s decision : if we interpret the supreme principle of laicità the way the CoS did, then all religious rites should have the opportunity to be held on school ground. As matter of fact, the supreme principle of secularism also implies the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion or belief.
All this shows that the case over the blessing at the school is part of an enduring debate in Italy on where exactly the church-State boundary lies. The argument is that such rituals, which include the blessing, are part of the cultural legacy of Italy, a point contested by a group of parents and teachers who filed a legal action to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). It should be noted that, in 2011 the Great Chamber of the ECHR overturned an earlier decision of the ECHR’s Second Section, and ruled that State schools in Italy could hang up crucifixes, concluding that they were “an essentially passive symbol whose influence on pupils was not comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities.”
Thus, it does not matter what the ECHR will decide in the case of Giosuè Carducci Elementary School. In the light of the above considerations, we are sure that, once again, the decision will have an impact.

Reference : N. Colaianni, "Laicità : finitezza degli ordini e governo delle differenze", in Stato, Chiese e pluralismo confessionale, n° 39, 2013.

Francesco Alicino

Autumn 2009 : The teaching of the Islamic religion in schools : a proposal arousing debate

Islam in Italy is always the subject of debate, particularly because of the little knowledge that public opinion and politicians have of religion and the Muslim world. The proposal by the Deputy Minister for Economic Development, A. Urso, to teach Islam in schools, with an hour of optional teaching as an alternative to the (equally optional) teaching of the Catholic religion, has ignited a debate which is above all fuelling the current divisions on the right.
Deputy Minister Urso, member of the right-wing party Alleanza Nazionale, has, with this proposal, brought about much needed reflection in Italy ; it remains for the moment, unfortunately, limited to political groups. The xenophobic Northern League party has declared its opposition to the teaching of Islam by referring to "safeguarding" Italy’s Christian roots (although the relationship between the League and the Vatican are tense). The Minister of the Interior, Maroni, (Northern League), says that, unlike Catholicism which is a unitary religion with a clear hierarchy led by the Pope, in Islam you can say anything because "the Imam interprets the Qur’an freely, there is not one set of dogmas, there is no clear message to convey". Beyond the dubious expertise of some Italian ministers in religious matters, the proposal is stirring up the minds of Berlusconi’s PDL.
But the debate should not be limited to political confrontation, as it could be an opportunity to reflect on the content and complex solutions to such an issue. Comparing this to solutions adopted in other EU countries is surely necessary, as the multitude of alternatives also reflects the complexity of this type of education (cf. the article by A. Pisci, L’Islam tra i banchi di scuola). The Minister for European Policy, Ronchi, is suggesting one hour’s teaching of the history of religions (which remains optional). For many, Muslims included, teachers who are Italian or have been trained in Italy should be found, so as to guarantee "correct" teaching.
Numerous issues have been identified in relation to teaching a religion other than Catholicism and especially Islam. The issue of what curriculum to adopt is not the least of them, then a response has to be found to a kind of anxiety among citizens about Muslims, which goes hand in hand - according to the current government - with the need to control the territory and its residents from abroad. What is more, the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI in Italian) is opposed to this proposal, like other figures in the Vatican - although stances also vary in the Catholic world.
The reflection takes place firstly on the pedagogical and legal level, particularly in relation to the issue of women’s liberties, wearing the veil at school etc. But when it comes to Islam, there is a very strong temptation to talk about terrorism and the opportunity was not lost on the Northern League, following an attack in which a Libyan citizen tried to blow himself up in front of a barracks on 12 October 2009 in Milan. An Islamic terrorist motive was obviously evoked by right-wing politicians, which was enough for them to challenge the right to citizenship, but also the meaning of the word ’integration’, which is all too often misused. The act which was committed seems, however, to be connected rather with the difficult social and economic situation of its perpetrator, than with Muslim or terrorist organisations. But regardless, sliding from teaching to religious extremism is common. Reading the Italian newspapers (not just theirs, moreover), we immediately perceive the difference in the ways these events were viewed by the left and the right. Berlusconi’s daily Il Giornale highlights the opposition of the League and the CEI (article of 20 October 2009) and - in what is a habit that crosses the political boundaries of our press - shows a photo of a veiled, young girl to speak of the teaching of Islam.
The internet gives us a quick, but on the spot, view of the current debate : the attention is more focused on Italians and Italian politicians, and then on what Muslim organisations think about it. However, Muslims are very interested in discussion and reflecting together on the solution to be adopted ; they welcomed the opening initiated by Minister Ronchi’s proposal. If for them the ’yes’ prevails over the ’no’ to teaching, methods will have to be defined and a careful selection of teaching staff (origins, training and orientation) undertaken. In general, everyone prefers the teachers to be trained in Italy, for the curriculum to correspond to ministerial instructions, for it to be delivered in Italian. They also favour ethical principles of solidarity, peace and love for the creation (according to Hamza Piccardo, President of the UCOII). For members of the COREIS (Comunità Religiosa Islamica), teachers should be Italian citizens, Muslims and qualified and the teaching must have a secular nature, provide the doctrinal, historical and cultural basis of Islam and therefore be aimed at all students. Others, on the Muslim side as on the left (PD), stress the importance of teaching the history of religions so that children get to know one another better, while advocating that the task of teaching religion to the faithful is left in the hands of communities (Izzedin Elzir, Imam of the UCOII in Florence).
It only remains to await the continuation of this debate at the level of national and/or local education, especially since there is not a shortage of "provocative" arguments on both sides and that Muslim speakers are almost always suspect because of their religious affiliation. Will the proposal by Minister Mara Carfagna to ban the wearing of the burqa and the niqab at school, although no incident has occurred, be welcomed as an "important signal" to move forward a broader debate on Islam ?
Will schooling and state education - pillar of modern democracies - ultimately be the primary interest to defend against any instrumentalisation and oversimplified opposition of Islam and the West ?

Alessandra Marchi

D 27 mars 2015    AAlessandra Marchi AFrancesco Alicino

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