.- In February, patients in the surgery unit of a public hospital in Bad Soden, Germany, watched as hospital workers moved methodically through the unit taking down 12 crucifixes that hung on the walls of the Protestant-run institution. The workers then threw the crosses into trash bags.
Why were the crosses removed? Because a Muslim patient had complained and the hospital had reason to think it might be sued if the crosses were kept hanging.
In November 2008, a veteran family law judge in Murcia, Spain was fired, fined the equivalent of nearly $25,000, and barred from practicing law for 18 years.
His crime? He delayed the adoption of a little girl by the lesbian partner of the girlâs mother.
Judge Fernando FerrÃn Calamita, 51, a practicing Catholic and father of seven, made a legal argument that he was acting in the childâs best interest and in conscientious objection to Spainâs adoption laws.
These were among dozens of examples of religious intolerance against Catholics and other Christians documented in a new report by the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe.
The 40-page study was released at the observatoryâs headquarters in Vienna, Austria on Dec. 10. The report comes just days after the conclusion of a summit of European leaders in which a top Vatican official urged leaders to pay more attention to discrimination against Christians.
While religious persecution and intolerance are usually associated with dictatorships or regimes run by religious extremists, the report details the rise of a secularist attitude in European societies that increasingly leads to intolerance against Christian beliefs.
The Observatoryâs director, Dr. Gudrun Kugler, said the abuses included the denial of Christiansâ rights to free speech and freedom of conscience.
âReligious freedom is endangered especially with regard to its public and its institutional dimension,â she said. âWe also receive many reports on the removal of Christian symbols, misrepresentation and negative stereotyping of Christians in the media, and social disadvantages for Christians, such as being ridiculed or overlooked for promotion in the work place.â
Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi said the new report âdeserves attention.â
"It is a base on which to judge the dimensions and the nature of the phenomenonâ of intolerance and discriminationâ he said in an editorial aired on Vatican television.
A great many of the cases the Observatory cite involve Christians being punished for expressing their beliefs about homosexuality and defending their beliefs in traditional marriage.
Often, the report said, anti-discrimination laws are applied in such a way that âcauses indirect side-effect discrimination of Christians.â In addition, the report said, âHate speech legislation has a tendency to indirectly discriminate against Christians, criminalizing core elements of Christian teaching.â
For instance, in July, Spainâs socialist government, which backs gay âmarriage,â fined a Christian television network 100,000 euros for running a series of advertisements in favor of the family and opposing the homosexual lifestyle.
Also in recent years, the commission reported, bishops in Belgium and Scotland faced threats of prosecution from members of Parliament for defending the Churchâs teaching on marriage.
The report also raises questions about the neutrality of the European Court of Human Rights, which has gained increasing authority with the push for European unification. The court, for instance, has ruled that crucifixes displayed in Italian schoolrooms violates studentsâ religious freedom.
The report also cited a 2009 case in which the Catholic University of Milan decided not to renew the contract of a professor who declared in class that Christianity promoted âunmerciful dogmasâ and declared original sin to be a âfiction.â The professor also said that âJesus was through and through a bad human beingâ and that the Gospel was the âmost frightening message ever made known to mankind.â
Later in 2009, the human rights court said Italy had violated the professorâs right to freely express his opinion â effectively placing the professorâs rights to speech above a Christian institutionâs rights to preserve and promote its identity through its hiring practices.
The report also details a rising number of what it calls âhate crimesâ directed at Christians and Christian symbols, including arson and vandalism of churches across Europe.
At the recently concluded meeting of the 56-nation Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, held in Astana, Kazakhstan, the Vaticanâs top diplomat, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, echoed many of the themes raised in this new report.
âIt is well documented that Christians are the most discriminated and persecuted religious group,â he said in an address to delegates.
âThe international community must combat intolerance and discrimination against Christians with the same determination with which the it fights against hate with respect to other religious communities," he added.
In his comments on the new report, Fr. Lombardi reminded listeners that while Pope Benedict was in England this past September, he also expressed his "concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity ... even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance."
The new report, he said, is an opportunity for reflection and commitment, "not only from those who work for the defense of Christianity and its values, but also of all honest people truly desirous of protecting the values of tolerance and freedom of expression and religion."