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ISRAEL: Late-night-TV swipe at Mary has religious, political fallout

February 22, 2009 |  8:54 am

A comedy routine on Israeli TV has angered Christians all the way from the Galilee to the Vatican. Lior Shlein, a late-night satirist, joked that Mary was no virgin but a 15-year-old pregnant by a classmate. He expanded on that theme from there.

The Vatican formally complained to Israel for the "offensive act of intolerance" and Christian Arabs demonstrated Saturday in the Galilee with placards equating Shlein with the devil, saying tongue-in-cheek apologies were insufficient. They demanded the president apologize and expressed concerns that this could undermine the pope's visit to Israel in May.

Shlein himself made a laconic apology.

Avi Cohen, the editor of the Channel 10 show, explained the satire was in response to the recent controversial decision to reinstate Bishop Richard Williamson, who was their intended target. Cohen did not regret the satire directed against  "one of the worst Holocaust deniers in history and a neo-Nazi of the most depraved kind" and had no regrets about their "appropriately biting satirical response."

They do, however, regret offending Christians in Israel and elsewhere. In a radio interview, Cohen said "we sincerely apologize -- for the seventh time so far -- if someone was personally offended by our fair-play and appropriate response to an anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying bishop."

Naturally, such controversies can snowball, and the incident is already spilling over from Israel-Vatican relations into the political sphere, tapping into tensions between Jews and Arabs both in and out of Israel. The general Arab public, mostly Muslim, is invited to participate in another demonstration planned in Israel on Sunday. Even Hezbollah joined the scrum with a statement expressing "deep grief over the abuse committed by the disgraceful Zionist entity on Channel 10."  Al-Jazeera looped Shlein's act repeatedly over the weekend.

Relations between Israel and the Vatican are somewhat strained recently, following Williamson's reinstatement. The chief rabbinate of Israel sent a letter to the Vatican asking for clarifications, saying they would not want to sever the important relations with the Vatican but would look for a delicate way to continue them, perhaps after an apology. Some, such as Holocaust survivor Noah Klieger, said this is a needless relationship altogether.

At the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stressed the importance of relations with the Vatican and expressed sorrow over Shlein's comments. He has no intention of restricting freedom of expression, Olmert said, but urged Israelis to show some restraint, even in satire.

Kaid Aboud, a spokesman for the Christian community in Haifa, welcomed Olmert's remarks but said they intend to demonstrate in his city of Haifa, a model for coexistence. And he wants Shlein suspended, at least temporarily. Summing it up Sunday morning on Israel Radio, Aboud said, "In the Holy Land, religious issues are no child's play."

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

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