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Italians ask: Is it OK to poke fun at the pope?

/ Source: Reuters

Forget the bloated deficit, forget the fact that Italy’s national airlines and train network may go bust; the hottest debate in the country now is whether it is politically correct to make the Pope the butt of comic satire.

That was the question on most front pages of Italy’s newspapers on Wednesday after the Roman Catholic officials reacted to a spate of Italian television and radio programs poking fun at Pope Benedict.

“The Vatican doesn’t like satire,” headlined Rome’s La Repubblica.

L’Unita, the newspaper of the largest party in the center-left government, even put its banner headline -- “The Vatican Can’t Take a Joke” -- above its story about the state railway system being “on the brink of bankruptcy.”

Satirical play mocks the pope
In one TV program, comedian Maurizio Crozza, dressed in white papal robes, imitates Benedict’s distinct German accent as he sits behind a desk flanked by two Swiss Guards in ceremonial blue, red and yellow uniform.

Crozza does a satirical play on two identical sounding words -- Pax (peace) and PACS, the acronym for a controversial law that would give unwed heterosexual couples and gay couples in Italy equal civil rights. He says “pax (or PACS) be with you.”

The pope and the Roman Catholic Church oppose introducing the PACS law.

In a radio program, a duo of comedians imitate the pope and his priest-secretary, Monsignor Georg Ganswein, a 50-year-old German whose boyish good looks have made him a minor celebrity in the Italian media.

One says to the other that the pope has started smoking three packs of cigarettes a day “like a Turk” in order to prepare himself for his trip to Turkey this month.

In Italy, the phrase “smoking like a Turk” means a very heavy smoker. The pope is a non-smoker.

Behind the controversy
The controversy started last week when the Catholic newspaper Avennire blasted the shows and hit the headlines on Wednesday after Ganswein was reported to have told an Italian news agency that he had had enough of satire about his boss.

While some newspapers defended the pope, L’Unita said any curbs on artistic freedom would be a “crusade” by the Vatican.

“In what times are we living?” asked an editorial headlined “Free Satire in a Free Country.” It said Italians should not accept any attempt at censorship and added that “this all smells a little like fundamentalism.”

A long editorial in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s largest-selling mainstream newspaper, criticized the satires, calling them “a sad gag.”

“The Teutonic accent of the German pope may be the stuff of a comic sketch but there are a billion people accustomed to calling him ’Holy Father’ and everyone wants to see a minimum of respect for their father, if only for his age,” it said.

But perhaps an editorial cartoon on Wednesday had the last word on what some consider a tempest in a chalice.

One character said the TV and radio sketches of the pope left a lot to be desired and the other responded that pope was actually funnier than the comedians trying to imitate him.