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Last Updated: Friday, 31 October, 2003, 17:12 GMT
Judge suspends crucifix verdict
Italian classroom
The law on crucifixes in schools dates back to the 1920s
An Italian judge has suspended a court order to remove crosses from schools after an education ministry appeal.

The original order to take down the Christian symbol came in response to a complaint by a radical Muslim leader.

It caused widespread outrage in mainly Roman Catholic Italy, where a Fascist-era law still requires state schools to display the cross.

The local mayor has ordered the school to remain shut until next Tuesday to protect children from media interest.

Police protection

Last week's ruling in the central Italian town of L'Aquila upheld a complaint by Muslim leader Adel Smith, who petitioned for a cross to be removed from his son's primary school in Ofena.

Even though moderate Italian Muslims distanced themselves from Mr Smith - who leads the small Muslim Union of Italy - Italian politicians and Church leaders condemned the original ruling.

On Friday, Pope John Paul weighed in, saying that taking down religious symbols could cause instability and conflict. "The recognition of the specific religious patrimony of a society requires the recognition of the symbols that qualify it," he told a meeting of political leaders of European Union police forces.

Taking them down "in the name of an incorrect interpretation of the principle of equality" could lead to "instability and even conflict", the pontiff said in Rome.

Now the presiding judge has used his discretionary powers to temporarily suspend the original ruling.

He has invited the parties to a new hearing on 19 November.

Mr Smith is under police protection after neo-Nazis threatened him.

Italian heritage

Catholicism plays a large role in Italian life, but the country is legally a secular state.

The law requiring state school to display the cross has never been repealed, even though it is not widely applied.

The Muslim leader had earlier asked for an Islamic symbol to be displayed alongside the crucifix, but the request was denied.

However, Mr Smith's challenge has struck a nerve in Italian society, the BBC's Frances Kennedy reports from Rome.

Even non-believers, she says, say the crucifix is part of Italian heritage as should be respected.

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