'Hands Off!'; Clergy Balk as European Politicians Brandish the Crucifix

ROME—Lawmakers in Italy’s new parliamentary majority want a crucifix to hang in every government building as a “permanent reminder” of the country’s Christian identity.

Across Europe, nationalists and upstart politicians are promoting the use of Christian imagery as they seek to change the Continent’s established politics and define Europe as Christian in reaction to recent Muslim immigration.

Christian symbols have long been a visible part of public life in much of Europe, but the new efforts reflect a more emphatic embrace of Christianity as central to Europe’s identity.

The moves are stoking disagreement among Christian leaders and drawing criticism from allies of

Pope Francis,

who says that Christianity mandates generosity toward immigrants.

“The cross is a sign of protest against sin, violence, injustice and death,” the

Rev. Antonio Spadaro,

a close adviser to the pope and editor of a Vatican-vetted magazine, La Civiltà Cattolica (Catholic Civilization), said on


last month, in response to the legislative proposal by lawmakers with the League, an anti-immigration party. He called the use of the crucifix for political purposes “blasphemous.” And he warned: “Hands off!”

Many antiestablishment parties, a rising force in European politics, say preserving their countries’ Christian identity requires sealing Europe off to Muslim immigrants. They are pulling voters from mainstream parties that favor a more secular style of politics.

For decades after World War II, parties that identified as “Christian Democrats” were a mainstay of center-right politics in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. But the decline of that tradition has opened up an opportunity for nationalists and far-right parties to claim the cross as theirs.

“The Christian Democratic parties saw Christian identity as a way to unite their nations, not divide them,” said

Rocco Buttiglione,

a former Italian cabinet minister and lawmaker with a series of such parties. “But they weren’t strong enough in defending that identity. They watered it down in order to attract votes on the left, and that left an enormous void.”

In Eastern Europe, Catholic leaders have responded more favorably than in Western Europe to efforts by politicians to link Christian identity to nationalist ideas.

In Poland, where government offices are frequently decorated with two-foot-tall crucifixes, many Catholic bishops openly sympathize with the ruling nationalist party’s restrictive policies on refugees. Last October, church leaders supported a mass prayer called “Rosaries at the Border” which implicitly opposed Muslim immigration.

Few Hungarian bishops have objected as Prime Minister

Viktor Orbán

recasts Hungary as an explicitly Christian country, closed to non-Europeans and battling what he calls “Muslim invaders.”

Mr. Orbán uses the term “Christian democracy” in a new sense: to describe the “illiberal” governance he is ushering in—a model he has said was inspired by more autocratic nations like Russia and Turkey.

Thirty years ago, Hungary was an officially atheist country behind the Iron Curtain, political use of Christian symbols was seditious, and a furtive alliance was forming between dissidents like Mr. Orbán and the clergy.

Now, many church leaders express support for Mr. Orban’s priorities, including the anti-migration fence Mr. Orbán had built along Hungary’s southern border in 2015.

“I’m in total agreement with the prime minister,” Hungarian Bishop

Laszlo Kiss-Rigo

said at the height of Europe’s migration crisis in 2015, saying the pope “doesn’t know the situation…They’re not refugees. This is an invasion.”

Mr. Orbán, a Protestant, showers the Catholic church and other denominations with millions of dollars in direct subsidies, and ends many speeches with the Latin expression “soli Deo Gloria” (“to God alone the glory”).

“It is not good, not healthy, and dangerous,” said Bishop Miklós Beer of Vác, one of the few Hungarian bishops to oppose Mr. Orbán’s adoption of Christian language for nationalist ends. “Separation of church and state is a very important basic principle.”

Moreover, some clergy members say, the church can stand up for itself. “If somebody has to defend Christian values, it must be the church, and not the government,” said Bishop

Tamás Fabiny

of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary.

The picture is different in Western Europe. The leader of the southern German state of Bavaria recently mandated that all state buildings display a cross.

Markus Söder,

the Bavarian premier and a member of the Christian Social Union, said on Twitter in April that the requirement shows a “clear commitment to our Bavarian identity and Christian values.”

The move hasn’t reversed the CSU’s slide in opinion polls ahead of regional elections in October, or dented support for the far-right Alternative for Germany.

But it has drawn fire from Germany’s leading Catholic prelate, Cardinal

Reinhard Marx

of Munich, another of Pope Francis’ top advisers, who accused the CSU of “expropriating the cross.”

“You don’t understand the cross if you only see it as a cultural symbol,” Cardinal Marx said.

In Italy, the idea of defining Christianity as a part of the national identity drew support from much of Italian society not so long ago. In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that crucifixes in Italian classrooms, where they have hung under legislation dating back to the 19th century, violated the “right of parents to educate their children according to their convictions.”

The ruling drew protests from the Vatican and from politicians across the spectrum who said the crucifix exemplified universal values such as human rights. The court reversed its decision two years later, reasoning that the Italian policy didn’t amount to a “process of indoctrination,” since a “crucifix on a wall is an essentially passive symbol.”

Mixing church and state has become more divisive in Italy as anti-immigration politicians advance and clash with Pope Francis.

Several of Italy’s high-profile church leaders have criticized Interior Minister

Matteo Salvini,

the leader of the anti-immigration League, for brandishing the Bible and a rosary at political events.

In late July, the Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana (Christian Family), one of Italy’s largest-circulation magazines, ran a cover story attacking Mr. Salvini, who has used his authority to block boats laden with asylum seekers from Africa from landing in Italy. The cover headline addressed him with a Latin phrase, “Vade retro” (“Step back”), traditionally addressed to Satan.

“Famiglia Cristiana compares me to Satan!,” Mr. Salvini replied on


: “I’m the least among good Christians, but I don’t think I deserve that.”

The bill that would mandate the display of crucifixes in Italian government buildings was introduced by lawmakers from the League in March. It would cover “all offices of public administration,” including polling places, prisons, hospitals and airports, though it isn’t specific about where in the buildings the crucifix would need to be displayed.

The crucifix is Italy’s “permanent reminder of its historical-cultural heritage, which has roots in Christian civilization and tradition,” the bill states. It would impose fines of up to €1,000 (about $1,150) on public officials who fail to install a crucifix as instructed, or anyone who removes one “out of hatred.”

The League’s embrace of Christian symbols is opportunistic, said the

Rev. Rocco D’Ambrosio,

a professor of political philosophy at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. “It’s a kind of attempt to defend itself, to say ‘we are Christians, we want the crucifix in all public spaces, so you can’t accuse us of not being Christians.’”

Write to Francis X. Rocca at francis.rocca@wsj.com and Drew Hinshaw at drew.hinshaw@wsj.com

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