In turnaround, Muslim author to receive German culture prize | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 31.08.2009

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In turnaround, Muslim author to receive German culture prize

An ongoing controversy over a German culture prize has been resolved. An Islamic writer is set to get his part of an important award for intercultural understanding, despite initial opposition.

Navid Kermani book cover

Some took offense at author Kermani's look at the cross

A two-hour talk between all parties involved has led to a turning point in the decision over who will be awarded an important German culture prize.

The dispute over the 45,000-euro ($61,000) Hesse Culture Prize first broke out in May. Initially, the award was slated to go to four men from four different world religions - a Catholic, a Lutheran, a Muslim and a Jew - in honor of the value of religious dialogue.

Controversial article

But Muslim author Navid Kermani was dropped from the quartet after he wrote an article that was critical of Christian imagery of the crucifixion. Catholic Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz and Peter Steinacker, the former head of the Lutheran church of Hesse and Nassau, objected to sharing the prize with Kermani, a Cologne-based writer who was born in Iran.

In March, Kermani had penned an article for Switzerland's Neue Zuercher Zeitung about a trip to Rome, where he went to see a 17th century painting by Guido Reni depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Kermani's piece begins as an analysis of the painting, leading him into a philosophical discussion of the crucifix as a religious symbol.

Cardinal Karl Lehmann at a Mass

Cardinal Karl Lehmann was among those who were offended

"I'd express my personal rejection of the theology of the cross frankly with 'blasphemy and idolatry,'" he writes.

"Not that I respect people who pray before the cross any less than other people at prayer. This isn't an accusation. It's a rejection."

Ongoing debate

In response, Lehmann and Steinacker formally complained to the Cultural Committee of the state of Hesse, which had planned to award the prize on July 5. Giving in to the pressure, the committee responded by withdrawing the prize from Kermani.

The issue did not die there, but continued to be debated in the media and among the general public. The prize committee pushed back the awards ceremony to the autumn, hoping to give the four participants (the fourth being the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Salomon Korn) time for a healing dialogue.

Salomon Korn portrait

Salomon Korn had rejected an earlier Muslim candidate

Indeed, the issue seems to have been resolved by a private talk, which took place last Friday in Mainz. Lehmann, Steinacker and Korn left the meeting saying Kermani "should also get the prize," according to a statement issued by the Diocese of Mainz released on Friday evening.

The talk took place "without anyone else present, and covered all aspects of the controversy," according to the statement. The participants said that the atmosphere of the talks was respectful, open and objective.

Muslims welcome 'late victory'

"This is exactly the development we were hoping for," said Dirk Metz, a spokesman for the state of Hesse.

The chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, Axel Ayyub Koehler, welcomed the decision, telling the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper that it was a "late victory for reason."

However, he said, it would have been better "if the representatives of the church had had a less emotional response from the beginning."

The conflict unleashed "a lot of hurt" in the Muslim community, Koehler said. "Muslims need to learn to be more relaxed and generous about these things too," he added.


Editor: Chuck Penfold

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