FROM BRUCE JOHNSTON IN ROME
A ROW over a teacher's decision to remove a crucifix from a classroom wall, so as to make a Muslim student feel "more at home," is having recupercussions throughout Italy.
The row came as Italians clashed over over calls for some schools to close for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Although Catholicism is no longer the state religion of Italy, a Mussolini-cm statute confirms to require that crucifixes hang in municipal buildings.
The crucifix incident caused an outcry among parents and officials, and led to a bold attack on a cunent affairs talk show on local state television by an Italian Muslim leader, Adel Smith.
Sympathising with the teacher, and the new boy, Mr Smith described crucifixes as "awful, shrunken dead bodies on bits of wood-. lie added that they were symbols of "violence".
People in the studio and the large viewing audience of the Porta a Porta programme were horrified. But days later Mr Smith renewed and even stepped up his attack, calling crucifixes "execrable" in a written statement. Omella Orlandini, the history teacher who removed the crucifix from the classToom wall of a state school in La Spezia before a new Muslim boy arrived, was given a stem reprimand by education chiefs.
"I had no idea what I was letting myself in for," she later admitted. "It was meant as a gesture of welcome."
This week, moves by administrators to close three schools in a province of the Piedmont region where six per cent of the population is Muslim, were questioned in parliament in Rome.
"In my book the move is unjustifiable," Giuseppe Menardi, a senator for the Alleanza Nazionale party, a government ally, said.
"It means that one creates a unjustiable sense of guilt and uncertainty concerning the world of Islam."
Meanwhile, a public assembley will decide whether a crucifix should remain or not on the wall of a classroom near the city of L'Aquila in central Italy. The class is attended by six small children, including a Muslim, who is Adel Smith's son.
Mr Smith asked his son's teacher to remove the crucifix. It was consigned to a drawer, to the dismay of other parents, and the local parish priest.
THE POPE was presented with the helmet of Franciscan Fr Mychal Judge, the New York chaplain to the firefighters who was killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11.
The helmet was a gift to the Pontiff from a delegation of firefighters from New York. It was presented to him by firefighter Patrick Burns.
Fr Judge was struck by falling masonry as he administered last rites to a firefighter hit by a falling body. He had taken off the helmet to pray. His was officially the first body to be recovered from the scene of the carnage after terrorists flew two hijacked planes into the twin towers of the city's World Trade Centre.
The Pope blessed the members of the delegation.
"May Almighty God grant the bereaved families consolation and peace, and may he give you and your fellow firemen strength and courage to carry on your great service to your city," the Pope told the delegation, which attended a Mass with volunteers of Roman associations.
"With the promise of my continued prayers, I invoke upon you and your families God's abundant blessings," the Holy Father said.
The firefighters were introduced to the Pope by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, his vicar for Rome, who referred to "the unforgettable testimony of dedication and courage" shown on September 11.
About 340 firemen died as a result of the terror attacks.
Later on Saturday, New York Fire Department Chief Daniel Nigro, took part in an Italian-organised demonstration of support for the US. Nigro spoke about his meeting with the Pope when he addressed the crowd.
"The Pope told us that since September 11, he has prayed incessantly for the victhns and for strength for us, the firemen," Nigro said. "We told him that this is exactly what we felt. All of us will return to New York with the blessing of the Holy Father."