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Christianity in Europe: A part of or apart from culture?

The Swiss minaret ban and the crucifix decision in Europe illustrate the disconnect between religion and culture there.

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It's impossible to understand European history without reference to religion. But it's less and less difficult to understand contemporary European society in purely secular terms. Two recent controversial political and legal decisions about the Christian cross and the Muslim minaret in Europe illustrate an increasing disconnect between religion and culture.

First, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France, ruled that the presence of the crucifix in Italian classrooms violated the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. At the center of the decision was the question whether the crucifix was a cultural or religious symbol. The Italian government argued that the crucifix was a cultural symbol for the core values of modern democracy and the Italian state.

The court disagreed. It held that the crucifix is predominantly a religious symbol whose presence in classrooms violates the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion of nonbelieving students and their right to an education that respects their personal beliefs.

Second, in a referendum, the Swiss people decided with a 57.5 percent majority (53.4 percent turnout) to support a constitutional amendment prohibiting the building of minarets. Right-wing extremists initiated and pushed the campaign for the ban. The Swiss government and parliament and nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International opposed it. Notably, both the Roman Catholic Church and the Federation of Swiss Protestants also actively opposed the ban on grounds that it was discriminatory and incompatible with Christian values of religious freedom and toleration.

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