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“A Kind of Christian Fatwah”?

May 13, 2002

Austrian artist Gerhard Haderer is exhibiting caricatures from his cartoon book “The Life of Jesus” in Germany. The book has unleashed a storm of protest in Austria and been branded “blasphemous”.

Unacceptable to criticsImage: AP

An exhibition called "The Life of Jesus" by Austrian artist Gerhard Haderer at the "Caricatura" gallery in Kassel, western Germany sounds like a harmless enough event.

But fact is, it’s anything but.

Haderer comes to Germany with his satirical cartoon book, "The Life of Jesus", leaving behind a virtual war in Austria, where his 40-page book was published over a month ago.

The reason?

BdT: Buchcover "Das Leben des Jesus" von Gerhard Haderer
Buchcover "Das Leben des Jesus" von Gerhard Haderer Cartoon-Band "Das Leben des Jesus" des österreichischen Karikaturisten Gerhard Haderer, das ab Donnerstag, 21. März 2002 in Deutschland im Handel ist. Der satirische Bildband hat scharfe Proteste von österreichischen Kirchenführern hervorgerufen.

Caricatures of the son of God as a kind of holy frankincense-smoking hippie, Jesus surfing leisurely over the Sea of Galilea instead of walking over it, Jesus’ fish miracle as a boat mishap... the book has outraged the Austrian clergy and led to a hail of protest.

Extreme protest triggers wave of solidarity

The pictures are irreverent and profane, gasp the high priests of the Catholic establishment.

Ever since the dominant Catholic Church in Austria denounced the work as blasphemous, the furore over the highly-controversial book has flared to new heights.

Catholic schools in Austria have announced a boycott against the publishing house.

The Bishop of Salzburg, Andreas Laun has spoken about a "evil revolt against God" and has demanded a jail term for the caricaturist for violating the blasphemy paragraph in the Austrian penal code.

And even the Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel (ÖVP) has stepped in and publicly blasted the cartoons as "irreverent caricatures".

But the vituperating and apoplectic politicians and theologians have triggered a new wave of support for Haderer and his book. A fact that has seen his controversial book spring to the top of the best-seller list and sales jump.

Germany casts a liberal eye

But the artist seems to have had enough.

In an interview with the press agency, Dpa, Haderer said he was "travelling to Kassel to take a breather."

For unlike the morally outraged reaction in Austria which has made headlines, churches in Germany have reacted coolly to Haderer’s book.

A spokesperson of the Catholic German Bishop’s Conference told Dpa, "the Austrians are definitely right in their condemnation. But we’d rather stay silent for we’ll just attract more publicity."

And even the Protestant Church is not planning to lodge an official complaint. The Church says that the caricatures are a matter of taste and it’s an individual thing if somebody wants to protest against it.

Engel, Illustration von Gerhard Haderer
Eine Illustration aus dem Cartoon-Band "Das Leben des Jesus" des oesterreichischen Karikaturisten Gerhard Haderer, das ab Donnerstag, 21. Maerz 2002 in Deutschland im Handel ist. Der satirische Bildband hat scharfe Proteste von oesterreichischen Kirchenfuehrern hervorgerufen.Image: AP

The German newspaper "Die Welt" commented that "the question whether the New Testament can actually have a comic edition only stirs very orthodox Catholics, who’d like to issue a sort of Christian Fatwah on the artist."

The "Caricatura" gallery in Kassel, Germany where Haderer’s pictures are currently exhibited wanted to give Haderer a forum where he could "dispel the accusations against him".

The management of the gallery, where the exhibition will be on till June 2 doesn’t believe that the exhibition will trigger a storm of protest the way it did in Austria.

The region is broad-minded and not Catholic or devout enough, they believe.

What blasphemy? - Haderer

Gerhard Haderer who was born in Austria in 1951, is well known in Germany for his weekly illustrations in the German news magazine "Stern".

The visit to Germany affords him a life without the threatening telephone calls and lawsuits that he faces in Austria.

But the artist is bewildered by the storm of accusations and the fingers pointed at him by the Catholic Church in Austria: "I’m not concerned with the criticism of the historical figure of Jesus in my book, but rather with what the clergy has made of him", he told Dpa.

He says it has nothing to do with blasphemy. "That would be a border that I would never cross with my caricatures."

But the clergy isn’t listening.