BERLIN – The decision of a leading opera house in Germany to cancel a performance of Mozart's "Idomeneo" because of a scene depicting the severed head of the Prophet Muhammad was "crazy," the country's interior minister said Wednesday.
Fearing a violent backlash from the Muslim community, Kirsten Harms, director of Berlin's Deutsche Opera, said she decided to cancel the production after a warning from state security officials. She said she was "weighing artistic freedom and freedom of a theater ... against the question of security for people's lives."
But the move immediately provoked strong reaction across Germany.
Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, the country's top security official, speaking to reporters in Washington, D.C., said the decision was "unacceptable."
However, the leader of Germany's Islamic Council welcomed the move, saying a depiction of Muhammad with a severed head "could certainly offend Muslims."
But in an interview with German radio, Ali Kizilkaya added: "I think it is horrible that one has to be afraid ... That is not the right way to open dialogue."
The furor 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 holy war.
German government officials and Muslim leaders were to open a summit on Wednesday to launch a two-year dialogue on how to better integrate the country's 3 million Muslims.
After its premiere in 2003, the production by Hans Neuenfels drew widespread criticism over a 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.
The severed heads are an addition by director Neuenfels to the 225-year-old opera, which was last performed by the company in March 2004. All four performances were pulled from the fall schedule after an anonymous call from a concerned operagoer worried about the impact of the Muhammad head.
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.
The 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."
Neuenfels has insisted his staging not be altered, saying the scene where the king presents the severed heads represents his protest against "any form of organized religion or its founders."
"I stand behind my production and will not change it," Neuenfels told the Berliner Morgenpost in its Tuesday edition.
The opera house's 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."
Berlin security officials had warned Harms that staging the opera could "in its originally produced form .... pose an incalculable security risk to the public and employees."
It is not only Muslims who have been offended by depictions of religion in art.
Last month Madonna drew criticism from some Roman Catholics in Germany for a show that staged a mock crucifixion. Mel Gibson's 2004 movie, "The Passion of Christ" met with disapproval from some Catholics and some Jews. In 2004, a Birmingham, England, theater canceled its run of "Behzti" after a violent protest by members of the Sikh community.
Still, many in normally open and tolerant Berlin, which has become a home for cutting edge and often contentious artistic productions, cautioned against compromising on issues of freedom of speech and art.
"Our ideas about openness, tolerance and freedom must be lived on the offensive. Voluntary self-limitation gives those who fight against our values a confirmation in advance that we will not stand behind them," said Mayor Klaus Wowereit.
Bernd Neumann, the federal government's top cultural official, said that "problems cannot be solved by keeping silent."
"When the concern over possible protests leads to self-censorship, then the democratic culture of free speech becomes endangered."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.