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CARTOONS-VATICAN Feb-6-2006 (620 words) With photos. xxxi

Vatican says freedom of expression does not mean offending religions

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican, commenting on a series of satirical newspaper cartoons that have outraged Muslims, said freedom of expression does not include the right to offend religious sentiments.

At the same time, the Vatican said, violent reactions are equally deplorable.

"Intolerance -- wherever it comes from, whether real or verbal, action or reaction -- always constitutes a serious threat to peace," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said in a statement Feb. 4.

The cartoons, which make fun of the prophet Mohammed, were first published in a Danish newspaper last fall and have recently been reprinted in several European papers.

Islamic anger has grown, along with popular demonstrations. In early February protesting Muslims burned or vandalized Western embassy buildings in Indonesia, Syria and Lebanon.

The Vatican statement, without getting into the details of the cartoons, said "freedom of thought or expression ... cannot imply a right to offend the religious sentiments of believers," no matter what the religion.

Certain forms of ridicule or extreme criticism can constitute an "unacceptable provocation," the Vatican said.

It said governments and their institutions cannot be held responsible for the offensive actions of an individual or a newspaper. Violent protests never reflect "the true spirit of any religion," it said.

The Vatican suggested, however, that where free speech crosses the line and becomes offensive to a religion, national authorities "can and should" intervene.

The cartoons are considered blasphemous because, first of all, Islam does not allow depictions of Mohammed, and, second, they show Mohammed in a number of disrespectful ways. One cartoon, for example, shows Mohammed in a turban shaped as a bomb.

In separate statements, two Vatican officials also denounced the cartoons.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told Vatican Radio that the ongoing demonstrations show how deeply Muslims have been offended by the depictions of their Prophet.

"We shouldn't diminish the love and respect Muslims have for their prophet Mohammed. This is very important for them and therefore cannot be the object of derision or ridicule," he said.

The archbishop added that violent reactions to such offenses are not justified.

Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, a leader for many years in the Vatican's diplomatic service, said the cartoons had offended millions of Muslims and demonstrated a growing trend to make fun of religious symbols in general.

"Freedom of satire that offends the sentiments of others becomes an abuse -- and in this case it has affected the sentiments of entire populations in their highest symbols," the cardinal told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera Feb. 3.

The cardinal said Christianity has similar sensitivities.

"One can understand satire about a priest but not about God. With reference to Islam, we could understand satire on the uses and customs and behavior, but not about the Quran, Allah and the Prophet," he said.

The cardinal said secular societies should not assume a right to offend religious sentiments. He noted that many countries consider it illegal to offend their national flag and asked, "Shouldn't we consider religious symbols on an equal level with the symbols of secular institutions?"

Msgr. Aldo Giordano, general secretary of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences, told Vatican Radio Feb. 3 that this type of satire was a type of vulgarity that goes against human rights.

"I see that the entire Christian world is very saddened and pained by satire of this type, aimed at the brothers of another religion," he said.

At the same time, he said it was important not to overreact and "not make it an occasion for a clash of civilizations."

"We should be able to transform offenses in an occasion of greater solidarity," he said.


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