German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned against "self-censorship out of fear" on Wednesday, a day after a leading Berlin opera house decided not stage a production because of concerns it could provoke Islamic ire.
German leaders widely condemned the Deutsche Oper's decision not to put on a production of Mozart's "Idomeneo" with a scene featuring the severed heads of Jesus, Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad, after Berlin security officials said they could not guarantee the opera house's security in the event of violent protests.
"We must be careful that we do not increasingly shy away out of fear of violent radicals," Merkel told the Hannover Neue Presse. "Self-censorship out of fear is not tolerable."
The issue was expected to dominate discussions at a previously scheduled summit with German government and Muslim leaders, which was to begin later in the day and launch a two-year dialogue on how to better integrate the country's roughly 3 million Muslims.
Kirsten Harms, director of Berlin's Deutsche Oper, said Tuesday she was pulling the 3-year-old production after Berlin's top security official recommended she either cut the disputed scene, or cancel it altogether.
Hans Neuenfels, who staged the production that the opera company last performed in 2004, refused to cut the scene, in which King Idomeneo presents the severed heads not only of the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, but also of Muhammad, Jesus and Buddha.
Harms said although the four performances of the 225-year-old opera would not be performed this fall, the production would remain in Deutsche Oper's repertoire and may still performed in the future.
The debate is the latest in Europe over religious sensitivities — following cartoons of the prophet first published in a Danish newspaper and recent remarks by Pope Benedict XVI decrying violence in the name of religion.
Response from Germany's Islamic community was mixed, with some praising the decision and others calling on Muslims to accept the role of provocation in art.
Ali Kizilkaya, leader of Germany's Islamic Council, welcomed the move, saying a depiction of Muhammad with a severed head "could certainly offend Muslims."
But a leader of Germany's Turkish community said it was time Muslims accepted freedom of expression in art. "This is about art, not about politics," Kenan Kolat told Bavarian Radio. "We should not make art dependent on religion — then we are back in the Middle Ages."
The decision comes after the German-born pope infuriated Muslims by quoting the words of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."
Earlier this year, violent protests erupted across the Muslim world after a Danish newspaper published 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad. The caricatures were reprinted by dozens of newspapers and Web sites in Europe and elsewhere, often in the name of freedom of expression.
Islamic law is interpreted to forbid any depiction of Muhammad for fear it could lead to idolatry.
"We know the consequences of the conflict over the (Muhammad) caricatures," Deutsche Oper said in a statement. "We believe that needs to be taken very seriously and hope for your support."