The German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, yesterday intervened in a dispute in Bavaria over a court decision to ban the practice of hanging crucifixes in classrooms.
"Our liberal social structures are essentially built upon fundamental Christian values," Mr Kohl, a Christian Democrat, said.
"We cannot and we do not want to renounce these foundations," he added, guaranteeing "tolerance and equal consideration" for all German citizens."
According to Germany's Supreme Court, the practice, which is based on articles in the Bavarian constitution, infringes the principle of religious freedom and must be brought to an end. However, the court ruling on Thursday unleashed a wave of protests in the southern German state, where almost 70 per cent of the 11.2 million people are Catholic and 25 per cent are Protestant.
The switchboard of the state's Culture and Education Ministry was jammed yesterday with calls from irate parents, many of whom said that they would pull their children out of state schools if the crucifixes were removed.
Leaders of Bavaria's dominant party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), promised it would resist the ruling.
"This decision is shocking," declared Theo Waigel, the leader of the CSU and Germany's Finance Minister. "It denies the fact that the Federal Republic of Germany was built on Christian values. We will not accept it."
Others likened the ruling to Hitler's decision to ban crucifixes from the nation's classrooms in the 1930s, or to the suppression of Christianity throughout the Communist bloc after the Second World War.
"After the bitter experience of the anti-Christian ideologies of this century and their horrifying, anti-human results, we feel a special duty to transmit these values to the next generation," Mr Kohl said.
Michael Fett, the CSU's spokesman, said: "People have been reminded about what happened in the past, and are worried about what this might mean for the future."
The Supreme Court's ruling represented the culmination of a 10-year crusade against classroom crucifixes by Ernst Seler, a follower of the German humanist philosopher Rudolf Steiner.
Mr Seler, who lives in a village close to Regensburg, objected to the presence ofcrucifixes in classrooms attended by his three children. Two lower courts in Bavaria rejected his complaint, only for the Supreme Court to uphold it.
The ruling was welcomed by Germany's Green party and the Association for Religious Freedom, which called for the immediate revision of the Bavarian constitution, specifically the obligation to educate children in accordance with Christian principles.
For most Bavarians, the idea of a classroom without a crucifix is as alien as the idea of drinking beer in anything less than one-litre glasses.
Resistance to the proposed change in the schools is likely to be strong. "Bavarians are undoubtedly the most Catholic and conservative of all Germans," said a spokesman at the education ministry. "They do not like attacks on their lifestyles.''
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