Hegumen Philip Ryabykh, the Russian Orthodox Church’s representative to the Council of Europe, said on Tuesday Russia would do what it can to help British Christians banned from openly wearing crosses at work defend their right to do so.
“I hope very much that the [Strasbourg] court will make a just ruling and protect the right of Christians in Britain and across Europe to openly profess their faith,” Hegumen Philip said.
The issue of wearing crosses at work recently came to the foreground again, when British newspapers The Sunday Telegraph and The Daily Mail a week ago reported that the European Court of Human Rights is poised to start considering the cases in spring of British Airways check-in clerk Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin, a nurse.
Eweida was suspended from work in 2006 after she refused to take off her cross at work. The airline, which initially claimed the cross breached its uniform code, backed down after the case was widely condemned. However, Eweida, 58, has been campaigning to cement the rights of Christians to wear religious emblems, a right she says is not denied to other faiths.
Fifty-six-year-old Chaplin was barred from working at her hospital in Exeter, southwest England, when she refused to remove or hide the cross she wore.
British courts turned down the women’s claims that their right to wear crosses was guaranteed by European human rights rules but the women have been backed by the Equality Commission, headed by former Labour politician Trevor Phillips.
Government lawyers are set to follow Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone’s line to argue that “in neither case is there any suggestion that the wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was a generally recognized form of practicing the Christian faith, still less one that is regarded as a requirement of the faith.”
The British government said “no pressure was placed on either applicant to change their religious views and both were told that they could wear the cross or Crucifix provided that it was covered when dealing with customers or patients.”
The government’s position has received an angry response from prominent figures, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, who has accused ministers and the courts of “dictating” to Christians.
Hegumen Philip said the representation of the Russian Orthodox Church in Strasbourg will closely follow the case and employ all available means to “seek ways to provide arguments in defense of British believers.”
He said wearing a cross is mandatory for Orthodox Christians as well as for believers of some other Christian churches.
Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”
However, the government says wearing a cross is not a “requirement of the faith” and therefore does not fall under the remit of Article 9.
“The irony is that when governments and courts dictate to Christians that the cross is a matter of insignificance, it becomes an even more important symbol and expression of our faith,” Lord Carey said.
Hegumen Philip also criticized the British authorities’ position on other issues, which are important for Christians, including “demands by atheists that religious schools be closed and dismissals of employees for their traditional views on family.”