FOUR Anglican bishops in the Middle East and Africa have called
for international moves to declare as unlawful all actions defaming
people or objects that are considered sacred by people of
Their call was made in response to the film Innocence of
Muslims, or Innocence of Islam, produced in the
United States, which contains scenes portraying the Prophet
Muhammad in ways that are offensive and provocative to Muslims.
The existence of the film, apparently made by an Egyptian-born
Copt in the US, has provoked a violent reaction across the Middle
East and in other Islamic countries. In an attack on the US
Consulate in Benghazi, in eastern Libya, the US Ambassador
Christopher Stevens, and three members of his staff were killed (News, 14
The appeal for legislation to ban the publication of material
that causes religious offence was contained in a letter sent last
weekend to the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, by the
President-Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the
Middle East, the Most Revd Mouneer Anis. The other signatories
were: the Bishop in Cyprus & the Gulf, the Rt Revd Michael
Lewis; the Area Bishop for North Africa, Dr Bill Musk; and the Area
Bishop for the Horn of Africa, Dr Grant Le-Marquand.
The Bishops proposed that an "international declaration be
negotiated that outlaws the intentional and deliberate insulting
or defamation of persons (such as prophets), symbols, texts, and
constructs of belief deemed holy by people of faith".
They hoped, however, that such legislation would not stifle
freedom of expression. Instead, all people, should be "responsible
and self-restraining in expressing or promoting offensive or
malicious opinions with regard to the religions of the world."
The Bishops said that there were suggestions that "some of the
violent responses experienced in the past few years are out of
proportion. . . However, it is a fact that people in different
parts of the world react differently, especially when it comes to
matters of faith" - hence a need to take their suggestion
Other prominent figures have expressed similar views. The Prime
Minister of Egypt, Hisham Qandil, told the BBC that there needed to
be international moves to "reach a balance between freedom of
expression and maintaining respect for other people's beliefs. . .
This is a small number of people, doing irresponsible work, and
everybody is paying the price."
The appearance of the film set off a chain of demonstrations,
which ended in attacks on premises in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen,
and Sudan. Protests were also staged in Iraq, Lebanon, and other
Arab states, as well as in other Islamic countries.
The Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo dissociated itself from the
film, saying: "Its release at this specific time is part of a
malicious campaign targeting defamation of religions and aiming to
divide the people." Similar expressions were heard from Coptic
communities in the US. Bishop Serapion, of the Coptic Orthodox
Church in southern California, said that the actions of a few
ignorant individuals did not represent the views of Coptic
Christians or Muslims. But the leaders also condemned what they
described as the disproportionate reaction in the Islamic
The General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK,
Bishop Angaelos, agreed. It was "the right of individuals or groups
to protest in a responsible manner against conduct that insults
what they hold sacred", he said. But, with protests becoming
"sometimes dangerously out of hand", the reputations of Egypt and
other states would be damaged.
The Bishop of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe,
the Rt Revd Pierre Whalon, denounced the film in a statement issued
from Paris on Monday.
"This crude bit of anti-Islam propaganda is nothing more than
hate speech, and in France and several other European countries the
producers would be facing charges. In the United States, it is
famously illegal to cry "fire" in a crowded theater - freedom of
speech does not cover every expression," he said.
Bishop Whalon, who is also a signatory to the Call and
Commitment to Action of the Christian-Muslim Summits, urged
religious leaders to continue to work together for calm, especially
in those nations where Christians are a vulnerable minority. "The
real purpose of this "film" seems to be to inflame Christians
against Muslims in general by presenting hateful lies as fact. By
depicting the Prophet in the worst possible terms, it also seems to
have been created in the hope of inciting riots by angry Muslims.
Sadly, this is its only success."
Security has been increased at France's interests abroad after a
French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, this week published
obscene cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. French embassies,
consulates, cultural centres and schools in some 20 countries will
be closed for the next few days as a precaution. The magazine
edition features caricatures which play on both the uproar in the
Islamic world over an amateur video which mocks Islam and the row
over the publication in France of topless photos of the Duchess of
The US National Council of Churches, referring to the deaths of
the diplomatic staff in Libya, denounced "this mindless violence as
a travesty and mindless rejection of the historic precepts of
Islam, Judaism, and Christianity".
The Vatican condemned the Benghazi killings, and the film. It
said that "profound respect for the beliefs, texts, outstanding
figures, and symbols of the various religions is an essential
precondition for the peaceful coexistence of peoples."
Within the Middle East and North Africa, the acts of violence
against US targets in Benghazi and elsewhere have been portrayed
almost as a natural consequence of the film. The first reaction
from the Libyan authorities in the aftermath of the Benghazi
attack was to condemn the film.
It was only later that the President of Libya's ruling General
National Congress, Mohammed al-Megaryef, offered an apology "to the
American people and to the government" for the attack on the US
President Mohammed Morsi denounced the film first, and the
violence after that: "I condemn and oppose all who . . . insult our
Prophet. [But] it is our duty to protect our guests and visitors
from abroad. I call on everyone to take that into consideration, to
not assault embassies."
While there is no doubting the anger felt by millions of
Muslims, the violence against Western targets was carried out by
relatively few people. In general, they are believed to have been
hard-line Salafists, and in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, they
constitute a threat to the authority of the new post-revolutionary
Question of the week:
Should it be illegal to produce material that causes religious