This opposition enmeshed the Empire in throes of controversy. People, including clerics and royalty were variously persecuted and mutilated for their support of, or opposition to icons. The upshot to the whole controversy was a brilliant exposition of the place of icons on the Orthodox Church penned by St John of Damascus, a noted iconodule, in which icons are instrumental in depicting the Incarnation, and finally, the official restoration of icons in 843. So important is this event, that it is celebrated even today, in the annual Sunday of Orthodoxy, where the congregation joins the priest in a procession around the church, holding their icons triumphantly.
Vestiges of the iconoclastic controversy still remain. In the church of St Irene in Constantinople, for instance, once can see in the apse, how the surviving cross was mosaiced over an icon of the Panayia. This notwithstanding, icons are all-pervasive in Greece. They appear everywhere from street-corner shrines, to car dashboards, key-rings and court-rooms, shops and classrooms. As such, they form an inextricable part of our culture. The various legends that periodically arise about the miraculous properties of certain icons, the public consternation that is evidenced when particularly beloved icons are stolen or damaged and the mass veneration still afforded to such icons as those of the Panayia in Tinos, or Panagia Soumela attest to their continued intrinsic importance to the Modern Greek people.
It is for this reason, that the recent ban on crucifixes in classrooms in Italy, as a result of a November 3 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that the presence of crucifixes in a classroom in Italy violated a child's right to freedom of religion has so jarred both the Greek Church, and the people of Greece generally. The European Court of Human Rights found that the compulsory display of crucifixes violated parents' rights to educate their children as they saw fit and restricted the right of children to believe or not to believe. To a society that holds its religious symbols also as national ones, the prospect of the removal of these from the apparatus of the State seems a most frightening one.
Experts fear that the decision by the ECHR could result in the removal of all public displays of Christian symbols in public buildings throughout the member countries of the European Union under provisions of the newly-passed Lisbon Treaty. The Italian ruling effectively incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into European law. Given the inter-relationship of the ECHR, the Lisbon Treaty and the European Convention on Human Rights, “unless the European Court of Human Rights overrules itself on appeal, Italy, and indeed the rest of Europe, has a serious problem.” If an appeal by Italy to the ECHR fails, Italy’s only resort would be an unlikely separation from the EU as a whole. As it stands now, Italy must report back to the court as to its efforts to remove the offending religious imagery from its public classrooms, courts, and other public venues. In Greek parliament recently, a member of the government, responding to a question by a member of the LAOS party, speculated that, given the Italian ruling, should it be pressed to do so, the government would be compelled to remove icons from classrooms.
This is because the Lisbon Treaty’s Declaration says clearly that the EU would have primacy over the laws of member states: “The Conference recalls that, in accordance with well settled case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union, the Treaties and the law adopted by the Union on the basis of the Treaties have primacy over the law of Member States, under the conditions laid down by the said case law.”
What is even more deeply disquieting is the fact that the demand for the removal of icons from classrooms seems not to come from any widely-held grass roots conviction that there is no place for religious articles such as icons in schools. Indeed, the vast majority of Greeks view the presence of such items as natural. Instead, pressure is imposed by extrinsic bodies, such as human rights groups like Helsinki Monitor, which has demanded that Greek courts remove icons of Jesus Christ from above the judge's bench and that the gospel no longer be used for swearing oaths in the witness box. Helsinki Monitor is also urging labour unions to challenge the presence of religious symbols in Greek schools.
As a conduit between east and west, our historical relationship with both cardinal directions has been a vexed one. Perennially under siege from the east, it was the west’s cultural imperialism, in the form of ecclesiastical expansionism, culminating in the Fourth Crusade, that is widely held to have cost the Greek people their freedom and, removed them for a considerable period of time, from the path of progress. Historical expressions such as “Better the Sultan’s turban and the Papal mitre,” indicate that as a people, we have deep-seated misgivings about the “West” and its benefits to Greece, despite our status as pensioners, I mean, members of the European Union. Unilateral and culturally insensitive applications of laws that offend the religious sensitivities of the vast majority of citizens of a nation threaten to damage the credibility and cohesiveness of the European Union. The ability of a few bureaucrats or jurists in Brussels to apply a broad-brushstroke approach to matters going to the heart of people’s identities, and in the process, disregarding thousands of years of history ought to be challenged and circumscribed.
Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens, as well as many Italian politicians are correct in stating that the court is ignoring the role of Christianity in forming Europe's identity. Bishop Nikolaos echoed the views of the majority of Greeks when he opined that without the religious icons young people will not have any worthy symbols to inspire and protect them. This is not quaint. I still have a small pocket icon of the Three Hierarchs that I took into each of my exams. My grandmother gave it to my father when he was at school and then to me. I in turn, have passed it on to my sister, whispering the secret of its operation: “Praying to the Three Hierarchs doesn’t help if you haven’t studied.” I also have a small icon of St Nikolaos, patron saint of travellers that my grandmother enjoined me to carry with me whenever I go overseas. Many of the people of my generation have had similar experiences. At Greek school, all my classrooms sported an icon above the blackboard, and a map of Greece, as does the classroom in which I now teach. Not all of us may subscribe to the doctrines or teachings of Christianity. The presence of icons in our daily lives may appear quaint, but it most cases, they have been instituted by people who love us and have sought to protect us in some way. Their religious importance aside, they represent warmth and continuity and are important to our public as well as private identity.
Greece is at this stage, far from being a secular culture akin to France, Germany or England. Religion, or at least the rituals of it, if not the doctrine, still forms an inextricable and significant part of the Modern Greek identity. In seeking to impose a uniform approach to matters of equal opportunity and rights, without regard to the unique socio-historical context of each country, the European Union threatens to destroy the diversity of culture that makes Europe unique in the first instance.
It is axiomatic that Modern Greece is increasingly becoming a culturally diverse country and that the rights of its minorities should be respected and protected. Forcing children to venerate icons would impinge upon those rights. However, the mere presence of icons in classrooms, reflecting the culture and religion of the majority of the Greek population and its importance to Modern Greeks does not.
At the end of the day, Europe seems still to be labouring under the Jacobinism of the French Revolution that saw traditional beliefs replaced with the State-imposed cult of Supreme Reason. The Greek people will not take this latest attempt at iconoclasm lightly. It will cause them once more, to question their position within Europe and within their own emerging East-Western identity. The process will not be without pain.