Saturday, April 15, 2006

ROME (Agence France-Presse) — An Italian magazine close to the influential Catholic conservative Opus Dei group has published a cartoon showing the prophet Muhammad in hell, sparking outrage among Muslim associations here.

The drawing in Studi Cattolici’s March issue shows the poets Dante Alighieri and Virgil on the edge of a circle of flames looking down on Muhammad, whose body is cut in half down to his buttocks, according to a description by the Italian news agency ANSA.

“Isn’t that Muhammad?” Virgil is shown asking Dante.

“Yes, and he’s cut in two because he has brought division to society,” Dante replies.

Opus Dei distanced itself from the magazine, with spokesman Giuseppe Corigliano telling ANSA that Studi Cattolici is not an official publication of the group even though it is edited by an Opus Dei member.

However, he said Opus Dei members “are free to have all the opinions they want.”

Studi Cattolici editor Cesare Cavalleri told ANSA: “I hope the publication of this drawing won’t lead to attacks, because if that happened it would only prove the idiotic positions” of Islamic extremists.

Cartoons by 12 artists first published in a Danish newspaper in September and later reprinted in a number of other mainly European dailies sparked Muslim riots worldwide.

“Sometimes a politically incorrect satirical cartoon can do some good. It’s only a reference to a passage in [Dante’s] Divine Comedy,” Mr. Cavalleri said.

“In any case, Muhammad was sent to hell by Dante, one of the greatest Italian poets,” he added.

Opus Dei, which has a chiefly lay membership, has aroused controversy over charges that it is secretive and socially conservative. It came to wider attention when it was heavily and unflatteringly featured in the best-selling novel “The Da Vinci Code.”

The cartoon in Studi Cattolici drew immediate fire from Italy’s Muslim community.

“With all the efforts made in the Christian and Muslim world for interfaith dialogue, there are nevertheless always minorities that inflame things and cause provocations,” said Roberto Piccardo, an official of the Union of Italian Muslim Communities.

Souad Sbai, president of an association of Moroccan women in Italy, called on the magazine to “step back, stop and lower the tone.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to sit down around a table and talk about it, instead of provoking things? What can such an initiative mean?” she asked.

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