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Cancellation of Mozart opera in Berlin sparks free speech debate

German chancellor Angela Merkel has criticised as "self censorship" the cancellation of a Mozart opera in Berlin because of concern that a scene featuring the severed head of the Prophet Muhammad could lead to attacks by Muslims.

"Self censorship because of fear is intolerable," Merkel said in a 27 September interview with the Hanover-based Neue Presse, following the decision of a Berlin opera house not to stage Mozart’s opera, "Idomeneo", the German Protestant news agency epd reported.

The cancellation of the scheduled November performance of the opera came under fierce criticism from German artists and politicians including Berlin’s governing mayor Klaus Wowereit who said the decision was wrong. He said he was not aware of any "specific threat that justified the cancellation of the opera".

Mozart’s "Idomeneo" portrays the rebellion of human beings against the gods. In the production by Hans Neuenfels that was to have been performed at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, Idomeneo, the king of Crete, steps onto the stage in the epilogue with a bloody bag, from which he pulls out the severed heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad.

The chairperson of Germany’s Islamic council, Ali Kizilkaya, told the online Netzeitung newspaper that the disputed scene would certainly have "injured" the feelings of Muslims.

But a national leader of Turkish associations, Kenan Kolat, urged Muslims to be tolerant. "Art must be free," Kolat was quoted saying.

The decision to drop the opera from the Deutsche Oper programme followed days of furore because of a speech by Pope Benedict XVI in which he quoted a medieval Christian emperor referring to "evil and inhuman" aspects of Islam, such as the Prophet’s command to spread the faith "by the sword".

Earlier this year Danish newspaper cartoons depicting Muhammad triggered worldwide demonstrations by Muslims. This led the Geneva-based World Council of Churches to deplore violent protests but also to say that freedom of speech "had been used to cause pain by ridiculing peoples’ religion, values and dignity".

In Berlin, Neuenfels criticised the cancellation of his production as "hysteria" and said he would refuse to make any changes.

The German government’s top official for culture, Bernd Neumann, said: "If concern about possible protests leads to self-censorship, then the democratic culture of free speech is endangered." Still, Green Party politician Volker Beck said he understood the refusal to allow the performing of the opera, although arguments about art should not be waged with violence.

Kirsten Harms, director of the opera house, said she decided to cancel the production after security officials said there was "an incalculable security risk" following an anonymous call from a person who warned about possible reactions to the scene.

(c) Ecumenical News International