Outrage over portrait of Bin Laden as Jesus Christ

Two entries in an Australian religious art competition – one depicting the Virgin Mary wearing a burqa, the other showing Osama bin Laden in a Christ-like pose – were defended by their creators yesterday.

Priscilla Brack, who created a "double vision" print fusing the images of Jesus Christ and Bin Laden, urged people to refrain from knee-jerk condemnation. Critics assumed that she was drawing similarities between the two bearded figures, she told ABC radio. "But I could actually be saying that it's a juxtaposition of good and evil, which I see as the base level reading of that work."

Brack's piece was one of 500 entries in the annual Blake Prize for Religious Art, and is on display at the National Art School in Sydney. A competition spokesman, the Rev Rod Pattenden, defended the inclusion of the double portrait – entitled Bearded Orientals: Making the Empire Cross – and an almost equally controversial statue of the Virgin Mary.

The statue shows Mary with her head and torso obscured by a blue burqa, of the type that women in Afghanistan wore during the reign of the Taliban. The artist, Luke Sullivan, said yesterday that his work, called The Fourth Secret of Fatima, posed "the question of what's the future of religion".

He told The Daily Telegraph newspaper: "They (religions) are hegemonic in their nature. They can be all-encompassing and powerful."

That did not impress Australian politicians, who were quick to condemn the pieces without seeing them. The Prime Minister, John Howard, said: "The choice of such artwork is gratuitously offensive to the religious beliefs of many Australians."

The £6,000 prize went to Stations of the Cross by Shirley Purdie.

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