National Catholic Register


Playwright Mocks Jesus, Sheik Threatens Death

BY Paul Burnell

November 14-20, 1999 Issue | Posted 11/14/99 at 2:00 PM


LONDON—A Muslim religious court here has issued a fatwa — an Islamic death sentence — against the American author of Corpus Christi, a play that depicts Jesus and his followers as a band of homosexuals.

The fatwa — which can only be carried out by a Muslim government — was issued by an Islamic court of the United Kingdom, saying author Terrence McNally had insulted the Messenger Issa (Jesus), who is referred to as prophet in the Koran.

Signed by Sheik Omar Bakri Muhammad, the presiding judge, copies of the fatwa were passed out to the audience as it entered the Pleasance Theater in North London.

Sheik Muhammad was said by supporters to have been questioned by police, who are believed to have warned McNally at his New York home of the fatwa.

The Muslim leader also criticized Christian churches for not taking stronger action against the play. “The Church of England has neglected the honor of the Virgin Mary and Jesus,” he said. “It is blasphemy for them not to take action.”

The sheikh warned individual Muslims not to try to carry out the fatwa, but said the author would still face arrest and execution if he traveled to Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia or Sudan.

The play has also drawn the ire of AlMuhajiroun (the emigrants), an Islamic organization in England which declared the play blasphemous. A number of supporters took part in protests outside the theater where the play is now being staged.

McNally's agents in New York said he would not comment on the threats.

While decrying the Islamic fatwa and any form of violence against the play and its sponsors, Catholic activists are leading the campaign to have the show's present run halted before it can be transferred to a major theater in London's West End, the city's equivalent to Broadway.

At the show's opening on Oct. 26, more than 150 Catholics staged a vigil and prayed the rosary outside the theater.

Catholic opposition has been led by the lay organization Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice. Its chairman, Daphne McLeod, issued a call to peaceful protest on the organization's Web site: “This play, which depicts Jesus Christ as a homosexual and our Lady using obscene language … should be vigorously denounced.”

The notice urges people to write to the theater's director and the local council, adding, “Unless determined action is taken the play will probably transfer to the West End after Nov. 20.” She informed Web browsers, “When [the play] was staged in Manhattan, protests were strong enough to stop it going to Broadway.”

As for the Muslim response, McLeod said, “As Catholics we cannot condone putting a fatwa on Mr. McNally, but neither can we keep quiet about this.”

The demonstration outside the theater on opening night was led by Kathy Kelly, owner of a Catholic bookstore in Central London. “I am not prejudiced against homosexuals but this is blasphemy,” she told the Register. “Jesus died for everyone, and this is how we treat him.”

Among a number of the play's more graphic scenes is a depiction of Jesus as sexually seduced by Judas Iscariot.

Kelly added: “On the first night we met some Muslims handing out leaflets and they said to us, ‘How could you Christians let them insult Jesus and his Blessed Mother,’ and they were right.”

Kelly's bookstore, which is a gathering place in Central London for many Catholics, has become a nerve center for the opposition. The Catholic Media Office, the official information outlet for the English and Welsh bishops, has referred inquiries from outraged Catholics to Kelly's shop.

Media office spokesman Tom Horwood said the bishops had not taken a position on Corpus Christi. “We haven't seen the play and we are not in a position to make a comment about it,” said Horwood. “I can understand that people are upset, and they have every right to complain.”

As for the fatwa, Horwood said, “Not even the [mainstream] Muslim groups are taking the sheik [who imposed the death sentence] seriously.”

Igbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the moderate Muslim Council of Britain, told the Register that his organization would not comment on the group that issued the fatwa or on its suitability, preferring to focus on Corpus Christi:

“I think this play is deeply offensive to both Christians and Muslims,” said Sacranie. “There should be an end to these continuing attacks on the faith communities.”

Sacranie called on Christians to “play a stronger role than they have … in preventing these insults.”

The show has been dogged by controversy since it opened last October to 2,000 demonstrators and a universal panning by critics, including those from The New York Times and The Washington Post.

English reviewers have been kinder and direct support for the play has come from Father Richard Kirker, an Anglican pastor and general secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.

Father Kirker told the Register, “I don't think there is anything to be offended by.” Asked about casting Jesus as homosexual, he replied, “Why not? We have no historical record of his sexuality.”

Some of the faithful think different, and plan to continue to press their case. “We are planning a final push for the play's last week and we are praying that it will not go any further,” said Kelly. “But even if it does transfer to the West End we are not going to stop; they can't get away with this.”

Paul Burnell writes from Birmingham, England. (ZENIT contributed to this report.)