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Israeli Christians protest artwork depicting Ronald McDonald as ‘McJesus’

An artwork called "McJesus," which was sculpted by Finnish artist Jani Leinonen and depicts a crucified Ronald McDonald, is seen on display as part of the "Sacred Goods" exhibit at the Haifa Museum of the Arts in Haifa, Israel, on Jan. 14, 2019. Hundreds of Christians calling for the sculpture's removal protested at the museum last week. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

JERUSALEM (RNS) – A work titled “McJesus,” depicting a crucified Ronald McDonald, at an art museum in Haifa has brought angry calls from local Christians to remove it — a result the artist said he approves.

Last Friday, hundreds of Arab Christians demonstrated in front of the Haifa Museum of the Arts, demanding that it remove the artwork. Some protesters threw fire bombs and stones at the museum and attempted to enter the building to remove the sculpture. Three police officers who attempted to manage the crowd were injured.

The piece, by Finnish artist Jani Leinonen, is part of an exhibition called “Sacred Goods,” which focuses on “the responses of contemporary artists to issues of religion and faith in the contemporary global reality, which is dominated by the consumer culture,” according to the museum’s website.

Leinonen demanded that his sculpture be removed from the exhibition because he supports boycotts against Israel, the Times of Israel reported.

The controversy has raised questions about the limits of artistic freedom in Israel, which prides itself on being both a democratically progressive country and the home to holy sites of three world religions.

The Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, which represents the Roman Catholic church’s various rites in Israel and the West Bank, acknowledged that the exhibition “is aimed at criticizing the consumer society,” but the group called McJesus and some of the exhibition’s other artwork “an abuse” of “the greatest symbol of Christianity.” The assembly demanded that the Haifa municipality remove the “offensive exhibits.”

“McJesus” is seen on display as part of the “Sacred Goods” exhibit at the Haifa Museum of the Arts in Haifa, Israel, on Jan. 14, 2019.  (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev, said she has received numerous complaints about a “grave insult to the Christian community’s sensibilities” and threatened to cut the museum’s funding if it did not remove “McJesus” and other controversial items from the exhibition.

That in turn brought accusations of censorship from the newspaper Haaretz, a frequent critic of Regev’s ruling Likud government.

Regev “refuses to understand that a democratic state is obligated to allow the expression of diverse opinions, even those that violate the current political taste, challenge some groups within society or are hard to swallow,” an editorial in the paper stated.

Although the exhibition has been going since August, it wasn’t until Christian leaders took notice of it this month that the creator of “McJesus” discovered his work was on display in Haifa. “I [only] heard about the exhibit and the demonstrations yesterday morning [Jan. 10], when I checked my email inbox, which was full of messages on the subject,” Leinonen said.

“That annoyed me very much since the exhibit is displayed in the exhibition against my will. I asked to remove the display because I joined the BDS movement that boycotts Israel. Based on the curator’s answers, I had assumed it was removed from the exhibition.”

The museum denied receiving such a request from the artist, the Times of Israel said.

Following a meeting with Christian leaders, the museum has posted signs at the entrance to the exhibition warning that it contains content that some people may find disturbing.

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Michele Chabin

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