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Bishops call for ban after US film row

21 September 2012


Banner yet waves: protesters calling themselves the Islamic People's Forum burn a US flag in front of the US embassy in Jakarta, on Monday

Banner yet waves: protesters calling themselves the Islamic People's Forum burn a US flag in front of the US embassy in Jakarta, on Monday

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 faith.

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 September).

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 seriously.

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 world.

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 Cambridge.

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 mission.

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 governments.


Question of the week: Should it be illegal to produce material that causes religious offence? 

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