Slovenia's Holy Civil War

Rock Group Strelnikoff and Virgin Mary

Christians often accuse Muslims of intolerance when it comes to religious matters, citing the often misinterpreted word "jihad" as proof of prejudice within Islam. Lately, Slovenians are finding that Christians are also capable of prejudice -- sometimes more so -- than believers of other faiths.

Slovenia is in the tempest of a religious controversy which broke last month when rock group Strelnikoff featured on the cover of their latest CD a picture of the Virgin Mary carrying a well-fed rat in her hands. Entitled "Bitchcraft", the picture and some of the music was, according to band members, a protest against anti-abortion statements made last year by the Archbishop of Ljubljana, Franc Rode. In particular, it was aimed at his criticism of Article 55 of the Slovenian constitution, which guarantees abortion rights.

Public opinion quickly became divided on the issue. Supporters of Strelnikoff defended the band on grounds of freedom of expression. On the other side, the Catholic Church and some political parties, such as the Young Christian Democrats, denounced the CD as blasphemous. A special mass was even organized, at which 7,000 people attended, to pray for forgiveness from the Virgin Mary. Meanwhile, petitions calling for the criminal prosecution of band members have been circulating widely, mostly during Sunday masses.

Yet opposition to Strelnikoff's CD have not all been so peaceful nor benign. Band members have received numerous telephone threats. In one instance, a journalist on national television went so far as to openly call for a public lynching, warning that "the group shouldn't seek the protection of the police if someone throws a Molotov cocktail on them during their concert."

The controversy also spread to the Internet. A homepage was established where young believers could express their bitterness about the CD. It was soon removed, however, when a growing number of contributions in favour of Strelnikoff and the right to freedom of expression began to appear.

For the moment, cooler heads have prevailed. The President of Slovenia, Milan Kucan, has attempted to calm the situation down by taking a moderate approach. "We should react with acts and words of tolerance and co-operation, with dialogue. We shouldn't react with suppressions and censorship," he said in an address to the media, appealing against the use of "verbal violence".

As for Strelnikoff, they don't appear too overly concerned. As far as they see it, it's a simple choice between one of two alternatives: to either live in freedom or get burned at the stake.

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