Artists face prison for depicting Christ as Mickey Mouse

Two Moscow art curators are facing prison after being accused of staging a show that allegedly mocked religion.

One of the paintings depicted Christ as Mickey Mouse, another as Vladimir Lenin, to the anger of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Artists and rights activists have appealed to the Kremlin to stop the prosecution of Yury Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev, warning of a return to Soviet-era cultural censorship with the rules now dictated by a conservative and politically powerful church.

Even Russia's culture minister admits the two men did nothing to break the law against inciting religious hatred.

But the prosecutors refuse to back down and have demanded three-year prison sentences when the judge makes her ruling on July 12.

The exhibit "Forbidden Art" at the Sakharov Museum, a human rights centre named after celebrated dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, featured several paintings with images of Jesus Christ.

In one, Christ appeared to his disciples as Mickey Mouse. In another, of the crucifixion, the head of Christ was replaced by the Order of Lenin medal, the highest award of the Soviet Union.

Mr Samodurov, who was the museum's director from its founding in 1996 until he stepped down in 2008, had already once been convicted of inciting religious hatred and fined for an exhibit in 2003 called "Caution: Religion!"

The exhibit was closed a few days after it opened after a group of altar boys defaced many of the contemporary paintings, which used religious allusions to express attitudes toward religion, culture and the state.

But Mr Yerofeyev, former head of contemporary art at the State Tretyakov Gallery, said they were unprepared for the enduring anger generated by the second exhibit.

Religious ultra-nationalist groups won the support of the Russian Orthodox Church in pushing prosecutors to bring charges in 2008 and then kept up their pressure on the two curators throughout the trial.

"In front of us opened a pagan wilderness," Mr Yerofeyev said. "Old women shook with anger, they spat in my face."

The trial began in April 2009 and ended last month, with hearings generally held one day a week. "On the one hand I had total freedom of action, I wrote articles, but once a week I visited the insane asylum," said Mr Yerofeyev.

He said members of Narodny Sobor, or People's Assembly, threatened him in court and told him to remember the fate of "Caution: Religion!" curator Anna Alchuk.

After she moved to Berlin, her body was found floating in the Spree River in 2008.

German police said she probably killed herself, but her husband blamed her death on persecution she faced as a result of the exhibit.

The defendants and their lawyers said the court proceedings were biased in favour of the prosecution and they fully expected to be found guilty.

Mr Yerofeyev said the aim of the "Forbidden Art" exhibit, which comprised works that had been banned from shows at major museums and galleries in 2006, was to show the reality of censorship. Religion was not the intended theme, he said.

The Mickey Mouse as Jesus painting was intended to illustrate the mixing up of facts in a child's mind, he said. A child hears about the bible from his parents while watching Mickey Mouse cartoons.

The Russian Orthodox Church continues to stand behind the case against the two curators. "They should be punished," a spokesman, said this week.

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