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Civil Rights

Pussy Riot nomination splits politicians, scholars

Was Pussy Riot's punk prayer in a cathedral blasphemy, or a courageous political protest? And does the band deserve a prestigious German award? The question has led to heated debate among theologians and politicians.

The debate originated in Wittenberg, a small town in Saxony-Anhalt, where reformer Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the local church. His criticism of Catholic traditions secured him a heresy trial by the papacy in Rome, but he would not recant and eventually became the founder of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Wittenberg's Martin Luther "Fearless Speech" prize is awarded in his memory. This year, the town council has nominated the Russian punk band Pussy Riot - to the utter dismay of some Protestant theologians.

Friedrich Schorlemmer, of all people, was among the first to criticize the decision. The former GDR civil rights activist and theologian from Wittenberg reportedly dubbed Pussy Riot's performance in the Moscow cathedral as "blasphemy."

Back in his day, the Protestant Church embraced the opposition movement in the former East Germany. But that didn't stop Schorlemmer from writing an open letter in which he accused Pussy Riot of choosing the wrong location, wrong form and wrong manner for their "disgraceful performance" and that they "had taken into account that their actions would offend the faithful."

Critics condemn 'abusive behavior'

Copyright: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/GettyImages)

Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were jailed for two years

Provost Siegfried Kasparick, who agrees that the band hurt peoples' religious feelings, is also questioning the Wittenberg nomination. "That's like nominating youths for a prize who have broken into a synagogue to insult the rabbi," he recently told the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung newspaper. Kasparick is a member of the dialogue commission of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), which cooperates with the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.

His comparison with an anti-Semitic assault most certainly falls short. But the criticism by these moral heavyweights nonetheless had quite an impact. The jury will decide on November 10 who will be awarded the Luther prize, worth 10,000 euros ($13,000). Until then, the members of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Citizens' Alliance in the Wittenberg town council will do their utmost to revoke the nomination of the feminist protest punk band, says the CDU delegate Frank Scheurell, adding that Pussy Riot got what they deserved.

"In Germany, abusive behavior such as this receives just punishment. And that is what these ladies got in their home country," he said.

A Moscow court sentenced the members of Pussy Riot for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. The defense argued that the Russian-Orthodox Church had supported the presidential candidacy of Vladimir Putin and that the band therefore had chosen the largest Russian-Orthodox cathedral in Moscow to stage their political protest.

Oil painting by Ferdinand Pauwels (1830-1904).

The Catholic Church branded Martin Luther a heretic

Role model: Luther

The Martin Luther "Fearless Speech" prize, to be awarded in April in Luther's birthplace Eisleben, is not for well-behaved citizens. The 16 Luther towns – places where the reformer worked and lived – honor people every other year who demonstrate civil courage by speaking out against political or social deficits, "just like Luther back then," according to the call for tenders. But although it isn't the Church awarding the Luther prize, the current debate centers on religious sensitivities.

"Unfortunately, blasphemy as an offense is once again becoming a topic in the West. I just can't believe it," wrote Elfriede Jelinek, lyricist and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, shortly after the Pussy Riot verdict. After all, defamatory or critical comments toward religion are covered by the right to freedom of opinion in Germany as well as in most European countries.

Manuel Vogel, a professor of theology at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, shares this view. He objects that the question of what is "civically seemly and aesthetically acceptable" is put on the same level with what is religiously permissible.

"God is dirt!" is what the Pussy Riot musicians allegedly screamed during their 45-second performance. Martin Luther was also no stranger to coarse language, emphasized Vogel. And the accusation of blasphemy is simply a moral cudgel. "Religious feelings are not per se inviolable.”

Heated debate

Copyright: AP, Steffen Schmidt

CDU icon Geissler says Jesus would have supported Pussy Riot

Vogel has joined forces with other Christians and supporters from Germany, France and Poland and drafted an open letter defending Pussy Riot. It includes the following sentences: "Schorlemmer says they have violated what is holiest. But they in fact stood up for that which is holiest: for fellow men, for human rights, freedom, justice and democracy." Even Jesus went on the rampage in the temple of Jerusalem to protest against the commercialization of worship and piety, adds Vogel.

Heiner Geissler, a Catholic and former CDU secretary general, shares this view and even says: "Jesus would have supported these girls." And Werner Schulz, vice-president of the parliamentarian cooperation committee EU-Russia, pointed out that Pussy Riot has already been awarded the LennonOno peace prize from Amnesty International and Yoko Ono.

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