A caricature poking fun at Orthodox Christian priests and the powers that be has sparked an outcry in Kazakhstan, a country that markets itself as a bastion of religious tolerance.
The offending cartoon appeared in the Russian-language Megapolis broadsheet on January 14, illustrating an article called “Christmas Surprise” that recounted how Astana city officials hijacked the Russian Orthodox Christmas service at the Church of the Holy Assumption in the capital. (Orthodox Christmas is marked on January 7.)
“Bewildered” worshippers were forced to line up along a red carpet to welcome officials from the office of Astana Mayor Imangali Tasmagambetov, while “church officials scurried about here and there and fussed around, waiting for the arrival of the important guests,” the article recounted.
After being given the red carpet treatment, the two bureaucrats were taken to the ambo, a special part of the church from which sermons are read (out of bounds to ordinary worshippers). From there, they read out a message from Tasmagambetov, a high-profile politician sometimes tipped as a future president.
“What was this? Some sort of political event, or still a church holiday?” one annoyed worshipper asked.
To illustrate such sentiments, Megapolis published the cartoon showing a porky priest telling a meek-looking Jesus wearing a crown of thorns: “Citizen, free up the ambo or I’ll call the riot police!”
Church officials were quick to take offense. “The article and the caricature have had negative repercussions in the Orthodox community,” Bishop Gennadiy of Kaskelen (near Almaty) told a news conference on January 23.
He said the article threatened Kazakhstan’s “striking successes in boosting interethnic peace and religious accord” and urged Megapolis to remove the offending cartoon from its website.
Editor Igor Shaknovich was unrepentant. “This isn’t a caricature of Jesus Christ,” he said in remarks broadcast by Channel 31 TV. “This is a caricature of members of the clergy, who do not want secular life to affect them -- [who do not want] us to say they are wrong about something; [who want] to be above criticism. And Jesus Christ is used to make us shut our mouths and keep quiet.”
Shaknovich’s remarks reveal that what’s at play in this cartoon row is more than a religious squabble. In Kazakhstan there is increasing irritation with powers that be behaving with disdain toward ordinary people, as illustrated earlier this month when a man was jailed for showing his middle finger to an official motorcade.
Astana might wish to take note: Just this kind of sentiment – that the well connected behave as they wish without regard for ordinary people – was behind violent riots in Azerbaijan this week.