Blasphemy of Jesus Goes Unprosecuted in Germany

In a case raising various questions about free speech, faith, and double standards, German authorities have declined to prosecute a caricaturist for offending Christian beliefs.  As the conservative German website Politically Incorrect (PI) reports, state prosecutors in Kassel (Hessian province) announced in a letter dated April 23, 2013 that they would not press charges against the creator of a cartoon showing a crucified Jesus hearing a vulgarity from God.  The incident once again highlights disputes over whether religions should ever be free from condemnation and insult in a modern Europe where some faiths such as Islam are often more equal than others such as Christianity.

The controversy originated at Kassel's Caricatura cartoon museum in August 2012 during an exhibit of cartoons, recurring every five years parallel to Kassel's famous documenta art exhibit.  The objection-provoking drawing of Jesus on the cross featured in the 2012 Caricatura exhibit both as a displayed item and, more prominently, as an enlarged exhibit advertisement on the museum's exterior window.  Nailed to the cross, this Jesus hears an unseen God above state in a speech bubble, " f- your mother [Ey... du... Ich hab deine Mutter gefickt]."

As a publicly supported regional Hessian television station (Hessischer Rundfunk, or HR) reported, objections from various individuals in Kassel led to the ripping down of the poster, although the cartoon remained displayed within the exhibit.  Kassel's deacon for the Lutheran Church, Barbara Heinrich, told Germany's Der Spiegel newsweekly that she "found difficult" that a caricature "defames the center of belief."  Referencing the cartoon's theme and German F-bomb "language," Heinrich told HR that pedestrians, particularly children and adolescents, simply could not "avoid" the advertising poster in a public place. 

The cartoon's creator, Mario Lars (actually a nom de plume of Roland Regge-Schulz, as the first and second pages of the state prosecutor's letter posted with the PI story show), responded to the controversy in an interview with a local Hessian newspaper.  Lars expressed no "intention to wound the feelings of believers.  I only made a joke.  One can either consider it good or bad....I consider it excessive to make an act of state out of it."  Lars speculated that many objectors took at offense at his use of German's F-bomb "ficken," yet this word "today belongs to the daily language among young people -- no one really pays attention here anymore."  Objectively speaking, Lars considered this word appropriate "at least in a metaphorical sense even if Jesus actually was the result of an immaculate conception."

Not laughing with Lars, and not satisfied with a mere abstention from public display like Heinrich, were the various complainants filing charges against Lars under the German Criminal Code's Article 166.  This law prohibits "[d]efamation of religions, religious and ideological associations [Beschimpfung von Bekenntnissen, Religionsgesellschaften und Weltanschauungsvereinigungen]."  The law punishes anyone who "publicly or through dissemination of written materials ... defames the religion or ideology of others" or a "church or other religious or ideological association within Germany, or their institutions or customs in a manner that is capable of disturbing the public peace."  Various individuals and associations such as the apparently one-man pro-life lobbying group Initiative Nie Wieder ("Initiative Never Again") and Ramazan Kuruyüz, chairman of the Islamic Religious Society of Hesse (Islamische Religionsgemeinschaft Hessen or IRH), filed the complaint against Regge-Schulz and Martin Sonntag, Caricatura's manager. 

One of the complainants, as PI noted, was the "Islam critic" Ralf Mayer, who sent the prosecutors' letter to the website.  Interestingly, as this author has previously reported, Mayer is currently awaiting trial under his own Article 166 complaint.  Mayer's legal troubles occurred after he condemned in a single sentence within a 2011 online article the "erroneous teachings of the pedophile goat herder of the 7th century A.D." -- namely, Islam's prophet Muhammad, "who very probably was psychologically disturbed."  Mayer's background suggests that he joined the Lars complaint in a demonstrative manner in order to cast doubt upon his own prosecution.

Examination of the prosecutors' letter does indeed offer support to those who regard Mayer's prosecution as unfair.  In general, the letter described the presented question as how far an artist may go "before he crosses the line between ('just barely' allowed) provocation and 'defamation' and wounding of religious feelings."  In this instance, the "guilt of the perpetrators" was "small" along with the corresponding "public interest" in prosecution. 

Although the letter attributed a "conditional intention" to the accused pair given the nature of the poster and its public prominence, neither had a criminal history, including Sonntag, who had managed Caricatura for years without any such prior Article 166 accusation.  The immediate removal of the poster following complaints, even as the drawing remained on display in the exhibit, indicated, moreover, that the accused "became aware of the extent of the 'provocation' on the basis of reactions in the public and did not want to deepen this further."  Against these mitigating circumstances the prosecutors noted that, "as is to be deduced from the relatively 'broadly strewn circle' of the complainants -- the matter has excited a relatively large interest in the public."  Yet, the letter concluded, the "limits of good taste must not necessarily be pointed out with the means of a criminal trial in order to hinder in the future criminal acts of a comparable nature."  The case in question presented a particular, unexplained "indefiniteness of a line drawing" and therefore inappropriateness for deterrence purposes.

PI judged the prosecutors' office's analysis as "very interesting."  PI surmised that "it wanted to prevent with the halting of the trial that it would come to a case precedent concerning what exactly criticism of religion may do."  PI determined that "such a decision would certainly be very obliging for Islam critics" like Mayer "who currently are in court for their statements."

Leaving aside Heinrich's concerns about putting on Lars's mature themes and language in public spaces, whether any future display of his Jesus cartoon will withstand German legal challenges raises interesting questions indicated by PI.  If German law will ultimately not prohibit Lars's drawing, why should someone like Mayer face prosecution?  Along with a general dismissal of Islamic teaching, Meyer merely assessed in a condemnatory manner often discussed and controverted Islamic accounts that Muhammad engaged in a child marriage with a nine-year old girl.  If it is acceptable for Lars to use vulgarity, however commonly accepted in modern times, in conjunction with Jesus, revered by Christians as a God-man, and the Christian account of his brutal death on the cross as an atonement for humanity's sin, why is Mayer's crass rejection of Islam's prophet unacceptable?  Why, furthermore, may Lars in his interview blithely doubt the Christian doctrine of Jesus's conception?  Mayer's Austrian neighbors to the south, Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff and Susanne Winter, who have both already undergone convictions in their country for similar references to Muhammad's "pedophilia," might like to have answers to these questions as well.

Both these Austrian cases prompted questions of equity in an online article linked by a reader of the PI story of yet another discontinued Article 166 prosecution earlier in 2012.  As the Catholic journalist Felizitas Küble wrote on February 15 that year, a local Berlin court had refused to hear a case concerning the German blogger Jörg Kantel, operator of the website Schockwellenreiter ("Shock Wave Rider").  In a June 29, 2011 entry criticizing the opposition to abortion of the "Ayatollah of Cologne," namely that city's Catholic Church Cardinal Joachim Meissner, Kantel referred to Meissner leading a branch of the "child-f---ers sect [Kinderficker-Sekte; Mars is not the only one who uses ficken]." 

The presiding judge had justified her decision with reference to "in fact heated discussions in public concerning the topic [of] molestation in the Catholic Church."  The decision therefore derived from the "numerous cases of acts of molestation by Catholic clergy and other workers of the Catholic Church having become known in the last two years."  Accordingly, Kinderficker-Sekte did not "disturb the public peace" under Article 166.  Kantel has gone on to use his chosen phrase repeatedly (for example, here), as a search of his website reveals, even though studies cited by Küble show that child abuse in the Catholic Church is disproportionately rare.  Comparing Kantel with the Austrian cases, Küble concluded that "according to current in-justice decisions in the German-speaking area uncontroversial acts about Muhammad may not be expressed, but in contrast the Catholic Church as a whole -- and therefore all its members -- may be insulted in the most evil manner and defamed as criminal."

Lars's case thus continues a pattern noted on several occasions in the past (see here, for example) of anti-Islamic speech often receiving swift condemnation while anti-Christian speech enjoys far greater tolerance.  Indeed, the HR news segment itself contrasted Lars's cartoon with the riots worldwide surrounding the 2005 Danish Muhammad cartoons.  In light of such judicial arbitrariness, Germany and other countries would be well advised to follow Holland's example in abolishing blasphemy laws, however stipulated.