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A Little Respect Is Harder to Find

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand, FEB. 26, 2006 (Zenit) - The recent publication of cartoons satirizing the prophet Mohammed brought many calls for greater respect of Islamic beliefs. Christians could rightly wonder when they, too, will receive some respect.

As controversy over the drawings continues, a television station in New Zealand chose this moment to show a "South Park" episode ridiculing the Virgin Mary and the Pope.

The "Bloody Mary" episode of the animated series has scenes showing a bleeding statue of Mary, whose spurting blood covers the Pope, reported the New Zealand Herald on Monday. Plans by the C4 TV channel, owned by the Canadian media chain CanWest, to show the episode brought strong protest from New Zealand's Catholic bishops.

The bishops issued a pastoral letter, read at all Masses last weekend. "The way in which Mary is portrayed in this episode is derisive, outrageous and beyond all acceptable standards of decency and good taste," stated the letter. "Pope Benedict is also insulted in this episode."

The bishops observed that last year the same company was responsible for screening "the offensive 'Popetown' series." The Broadcasting Standards Authority has yet to deal with the complaint made by the bishops.

In their pastoral letter the bishops explained that they wrote to CanWest several weeks ago, asking the company not to screen the "South Park" episode "because of the grave offence it would give to all Christians, including Catholics, and people of other faiths and cultures." Leaders of the Anglican and Presbyterian churches also signed the letter, along with figures from the Muslim and Jewish communities. Even New Zealand's prime minister, Helen Clark, a declared agnostic, commented that she found the cartoon offensive.

CanWest responded to the protests by bringing forward the screening of the episode, from May 10 to Wednesday this week. According to Wednesday's issue of the New Zealand Herald, the company informed the Catholic Church's communications director, Lyndsay Freer, of the decision at 5 p.m. Tuesday. She was asked to comment on it for the 6 p.m. news bulletin on one of CanWest's channels.

"Given that by far the majority of those involved in the debate have not had the opportunity to view the episode, we feel it is important to give the public of New Zealand that chance," said Rick Friesen, chief operating officer of CanWest-owned TVWorks.

The Church has called for a boycott of the television station. And Wednesday's Herald article reported that Patrick Quin, owner of the agency Max Recruitment, has withdrawn advertising worth about $4,300 a month from CanWest.

Insulting Jesus

The New Zealand case is far from an isolated episode. Last Nov. 8 the British newspaper Guardian reported that a French paper had won a court battle giving it the right to show a cartoon of a naked Jesus wearing a condom.

The daily Liberation was taken to court by a Christian organization after printing the image in April. A court in Paris described the portrayal as "crude" but said it did not contravene any laws.

Last Sunday another British newspaper, the Observer, published a commentary by Nick Cohen, headlined "It's So Cowardly to Attack the Church When We Won't Offend Islam."

Cohen described his visit to an art exhibition in London's East End by artists Gilbert and George. The exhibition is entitled "Sonofagod Pictures: Was Jesus Heterosexual?" The catalogue described the works as "an assault on the laws and institutions of superstition and religious belief."

"This isn't a brave assault on all religions, just Catholicism," explained Cohen. "The gallery owners know that although Catholics will be offended, they won't harm them." He added: "If they were to do the same to Islam, all hell would break loose."

Another case is that of popular Swedish jeans, which come with the logo of a skull with a cross turned upside down on its forehead, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Jan. 15.

"It is an active statement against Christianity," explained Bjorn Atldax, the designer of the jeans. "I'm not a Satanist myself, but I have a great dislike for organized religion." Atldax said that he wants to make young people question Christianity, which he called a "force of evil" that had sparked wars throughout history.

The jeans have been shipped throughout Europe and to Australia, and there are plans to introduce them to the United States and elsewhere, the Inquirer said. Around 200,000 pairs have been sold since March 2004.

Parody abounds

Attacks on Christianity also abound in the United States. Among the examples noted Feb. 15 by the Washington Post were: the latest cover of Rolling Stone, featuring rapper Kanye West wearing Christ's crown of thorns; "South Park's" "The Spirit of Christmas" short, featuring an obscenity-filled fistfight between Christ and Santa Claus; a radio show featuring comedian J. Anthony Brown and his "biblical sayings" from the Last Supper, in which disciples make outrageous quips.

The newspaper also recalled the 1999 controversy when then New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to shut down a museum for featuring a painting of the Virgin Mary covered with elephant dung.

And, at the same time Christianity is held up to ridicule, believers face obstacles in proclaiming their own faith. A recent case is the decision on Christmas displays in New York's public schools.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it is constitutionally permissible for the schools to ban the display of the Christian nativity during Christmas, while permitting the display of the Jewish menorah and the Islamic star and crescent during Hanukkah and Ramadan. The Thomas More Law Center reported on the decision in a press release dated Feb. 3.

City authorities defended the policy by arguing that the menorah and star and crescent were permissible symbols because they were "secular," whereas the Nativity scene had to be excluded because it was "purely religious." The court judged that this argument was fallacious, stating that the policy "mischaracterizes" the symbols. But it still upheld the ban on the Nativity scene.

Further examples abound. In Britain a council-run crematorium removed a wooden cross from its chapel, for fear of offending non-Christians, the Times reported last June 9. Torbay Council in Devon also announced that the chapel would in future be known as the ceremony hall.

A local Anglican vicar, Anthony Macey, observed that the cross had been in the chapel for nearly 50 years. And Father Paul Connor, the Catholic priest for Brixham, said: "If the cross offends people they can cover it up. What about the Christians who are offended by its removal?"

Respecting beliefs

The Second Vatican Council's pastoral constitution "Gaudium et Spes" addressed the question of contemporary culture and freedom. Culture, it said in No. 59, "has constant need of a just liberty in order to develop." For this reason it has "a certain inviolability," which is, however, not absolute. It is limited by the common good and the rights of individuals and the community, the document said.

And concerning these limitations, Benedict XVI commented on the importance of respecting religious beliefs, during his speech Monday to Morocco's new ambassador to the Holy See. "It is necessary and urgent that religions and their symbols be respected," the Pope said.

He added that this implies that "believers not be the object of provocations that wound their lives and religious sentiments." A principle valid for all religions, Christianity included.

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Christianity, Mohammed, Islam, Mary

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