The Cross in the dock

What happens to Lithuania’s famous Hill of Crosses if the European Court of Human Rights succeeds in banning religious symbols? 
Sigitas Tamkevičius | Jun 23 2010 | comment  

Ahead of a June 30 hearing on the European Court of Human Rights’ decision banning the display of crosses in Italian schools, Kaunas Archbishop Sigitas Tamkevičius, head of the Lithuanian Bishops Conference, compares the ruling to Soviet persecution of national identity in the recent past. Lithuania, this year celebrating 20 years of regained independence, saw its famous “Hill of Crosses” shrine bulldozed three times by Soviet authorities. UNESCO has included cross crafting in Lithuania on its World Heritage list.
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The decision of the European Court of Human Rights of 3 November 2009 to forbid the use of religious symbols, including the Crucifix, in public buildings, is disquieting due to its possible ramifications for the culture, identity, traditions and freedom of our nation. Such a court decision creates a dangerous precedent for the imposition by international institutions of a certain “uniform” value system reflecting only a single type of worldview on states and societies that are characterised by a diversity of cultures and traditions. In this regard, attention must be drawn to issues of religious freedom, separation of Church and state, and individual and collective human rights.

A nation and a society cannot exist without culture and traditions. For it is precisely culture and traditions that give a society and nation their distinctiveness and identity. For their part, culture and traditions are always linked to certain values and moral views, which are held by that society to be fitting and which often have religious roots. The ethical views that underlie a culture cannot be separated from that culture without at the same time destroying the culture itself. A culture cut off from its values and moral roots unavoidably loses its vitality and eventually ceases to exist.

A nation cannot be free if it is not able, privately and publicly, to cherish its traditions and its culture, and to utilise the symbols that express that culture and those traditions. Those who occupied our nation understood this very well as they strove to suppress our freedom, break our spirit and weaken our national awareness. It is not so long ago that our nation suffered through times when publicly displayed national, state or religious symbols were destroyed, while anyone using such symbols was persecuted.

Today the right of societies, communities and nations to cherish their identity, culture, traditions and religion, is often portrayed as being opposed to individual human rights. It should not be forgotten, however, that human rights do not exist in a “vacuum”, in value-neutral space. They always exist in a specific social and cultural context. The human right to cherish one’s own cultural, national and religious identity would lose all meaning in the absence of respect for the right of specific national, religious and worldview groups to hold and cherish their values and traditions. For this reason, individual human rights should not be implemented in way that denies the right of a nation or community to cherish its identity and pass it on to the younger generation as a legacy of culture and tradition.

When priority is given to egocentric individualism, allowing individuals to use legal instruments to limit the right of the community or society to cherish certain values or traditions just because someone disagrees with them or is disturbed by them, that does not foster the true spread of human rights

The separation of Church and state, so often mentioned in public discussions, does not mean that the religious symbols and traditions, which are part of the cultural heritage and identity of the nation that lives in and constitutes a state, should be eliminated from public spaces, institutions or schools. Everything that makes up our nation’s cultural heritage has the right to be cherished in society, in the state and in schools. It is absurd to express support for the preservation of a national culture and at the same time forbid the use of the symbols that express that culture.

By forbidding the display of religious symbols in schools, a society would lose its ability to transmit the identity and values expressed by those symbols to future generations. It would thereby risk losing the roots of its identity and the prospects for preserving that identity in the future.

It should also be noted that the principle of a secular state endorsed in the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania does not mean the state should be opposed to public exercise of the religious symbols or religious traditions that form part of the nation’s historical and cultural heritage. Requiring the removal of religious symbols from public spaces or schools does not, as is sometimes claimed, demonstrate the state’s neutrality or ensure true pluralism. Such a requirement simply shows that, obscured by slogans of neutrality and secularity, priority is being given to an atheistic worldview and an ideology of secularism.

The Crucifix symbolises the love of God himself – who became man and gave his life for the sake of the future of humankind – toward each human person, independent of his or her nationality, race, sex, age or state in life. The symbol of the cross testifies to the value of the human person in God’s eyes.

And it is precisely the notion of the human being as a person created in the image and likeness of God that was the basis for the development of European culture and Western civilisation. The presence of the symbol of the cross in public spaces and educational institutions testifies to these cultural roots of Europe and, at the same time, of our nation. The fundamental principle of religious freedom means freedom to profess the religion of one’s choice, to practice it and promote it. However, the mere presence of the cross in public spaces does not and cannot force anyone to accept a faith, nor does it limit his or her freedom to profess another religion and promote it.

That is why the decision of the European Court of Human Rights is reason for concern, as it alters the notion of freedom of religion and creates what is essentially a new “human right” not to be disturbed by religious symbols that one does not like. The endorsement of such a precedent would mean that every individual who is dissatisfied with the symbols that express the culture of the place in which he or she resides, could without any well-founded reason initiate legal action against the state in the European Court of Human Rights.

For this reason, we welcome the Lithuanian Government’s decision together with other countries to support Italy in the European Court of Human Rights, participating as a third party and seeking to defend the right of states and nations to cherish their culture and the traditions and values they choose. Europe can survive only if there is respect for the freedom of the nations that comprise it to cherish their culture and the Christian roots of their culture.

Sigitas Tamkevičius is chairman of the Lithuanian Bishops Conference.

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