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Controversial 'Christ' Photo Exhibit Opens in Paris - 2002-12-20

It is hard to escape images of Jesus this holiday season, particularly in traditionally Christian countries, where every corner church boasts an elaborate Nativity scene. But, nowhere are the images of Christ more provocative than at a new photography show taking place in the French capital.

Jesus Christ is the main attraction at the Hotel de Sully, a graceful museum in the Marais, the ancient Jewish quarter of Paris. Photographs depict likenesses of Jesus wrapped around a Nazi swastika, or sprawled on a dusty road near the Palestinian territory of Gaza. Christ appears as an old Japanese man, and as Cuban revolutionary fighter Che Guevara. He is portrayed as one of many of those who regularly trudge up Jerusalem's famous Via Dela Rosa carrying crosses.

Billed as the first photography show totally devoted to Christ and Christian images, the exhibition was conceived by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It may seem odd that the Jewish state's flagship museum is interested in Jesus. But in an interview from Jerusalem, the show's organizer, Nissan Perez, noted Jerusalem is the center of Christianity, as well as Judaism. Besides, Mr. Perez said, the exhibition is not about Christianity.

"Let's make it clear this exhibition has nothing to do with religion itself," he said. "Those are religious images or images related to religious subjects. But it's not a religious exhibition. It's all done in the perspective of history of photography, and art history."

Mr. Perez, who is also curator of photography at the Israel Museum, spent months sifting through hundreds of photographs for the show. The 150 selected include works from 1855 to the present. The exhibition aims to reveal profoundly different interpretations of Jesus across generations and cultures, Mr. Perez says. Another theme is the exploitation of Christ-like images in advertising and political propaganda.

Those points are underscored by the show's photographers, who not only include Christians, but Jews and agnostics - although no Muslims. Both the Jewish and Muslim faiths generally shun engraved images, but Mr. Perez believes Muslims tend to be more strict than Jews on this matter.

The photographs on display are sometimes abrasive, but none are deeply offensive. Some pictures are haunting, such as that of Jesus carrying his cross past Hitler. Mr. Perez sought advice from Roman Catholic clergy to avoid what he called "gratuitous scandals."

But he is bracing for tough criticism in May, when the show opens in Jerusalem.

"I believe the Jewish Orthodox will scream and shout and yell at the fact that the Israel Museum is daring to show photographs of Christ," he said. "Because for very orthodox Jews even the idea of Christ goes against the grain - its a no, no, it's a taboo, it shouldn't be seen or talked about."

Also jarring are images of the ever-present clashes in Mr. Perez' own country. A 1999 photograph inspired by Christ's Last Supper features Israeli soldiers eating bread and oranges. A 2001 scene by photojournalist Pavel Wohlberg, captures women lamenting over a Palestinian man who has fainted during an Israeli army raid in Gaza. The Paris show runs through January 5, but it will be closed for Christmas.