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(photo credit: AP)
A leading German opera house unleashed a furious debate over free speech Tuesday by pulling a production over fears it posed a security risk because of a scene featuring the severed heads of Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad.
The Deutsche Oper said it had decided "with great regret" to cancel a planned production of Mozart's "Idomeneo" after Berlin security officials warned of an "incalculable risk" because of scenes dealing with Islam, as well as other religions.
Kirsten Harms, director of the Deutsche Oper, told reporters that Berlin state police had warned of a possible - but not certain - threat if the opera, a production by Hans Neuenfels which triggered criticism after its premiere in 2003, were staged.
"If I were to ignore this and say, 'We are going to stage this nevertheless, or because of this,' and something were to happen, then everyone would say, and would be right to say, she ignored the warning of security officials," Harms said.
Neuenfels' production drew widespread criticism over a scene in which King Idomeneo presents the severed heads not only of the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, but also of Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad.
"We know the consequences of the conflict over the (Muhammad) caricatures," the opera house said in its statement announcing the change to its fall program. "We believe that needs to be taken very seriously and hope for your support."
Harms said security officials had recommended, but not ordered, that she either cut the scene from the production or pull it from the 2006-2007 lineup.
Harms said she spoke at length with Neuenfels, as well as the orchestra director and others involved in the production before making her decision, which she described as "weighing artistic freedom and freedom of a theater over what pictures it uses to tell a story against the question of security for people's lives."
While some expressed understanding for the decision, most were outraged.
"That is crazy," Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told reporters in Washington, where he was holding meetings with US officials. "This is unacceptable."
The leader of Germany's Islamic Council welcomed the decision, saying a depiction of Muhammad with a severed head "could certainly offend Muslims."
"Nevertheless, of course I think it is horrible that one has to be afraid," Ali Kizilkaya told Berlin's Radio Multikulti. "That is not the right way to open dialogue."
Berlin Police Chief Dieter Glietsch said on rbb radio that "one can find nothing wrong if, in a climate that's already tense between Islam and the Western world, people avoid heating up the situation further through a scene that can _ and perhaps even must _ be taken as provocative by pious Muslims."
Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, however, said that "with all understanding for the concern about the security of spectators and performers, I consider the decision of the director to be wrong.
"Our ideas about openness, tolerance and freedom must be lived out on the offensive. Voluntary self-limitation gives those who fight against our values a confirmation in advance that we will not stand behind them."
Bernd Neumann, the federal government's top cultural official, said that "problems cannot be solved by keeping silent."
"When the concern over possible protests leads to self-censorship, then the democratic culture of free speech becomes endangered."
Islamic law is interpreted to forbid any depiction of Muhammad for fear it could lead to idolatry.
The leader of Germany's Turkish Community said that while he could understand how the production could be seen as offensive, he also encouraged Muslims living in the West to accept certain elements of the traditions here, noting an opera production is not equivalent to a political point of view.
"I would recommend Muslims learn to accept certain things," Kenan Kolat told the online Netzeitung newspaper. "Art must remain free."