The German government accused a Berlin opera house of "self-censorship" on Tuesday for cancelling performances of a Mozart opera because it was concerned about attacks by Islamists.
The Deutsche Oper, one of Berlin's three opera houses, was due to show a controversial production of Mozart's "Idomeneo" by director Hans Neuenfels in which the severed heads of the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus and Buddha are placed on four chairs.
Deutsche Opera manager Kirsten Harms pulled the opera, due be performed four times in November, after receiving a warning from police. "We got alerted by the police that all the press publicity surrounding the play would severely heighten the security risk to this opera," she told a news conference.
After its premiere at the Deutsche Oper in December 2003, the Neuenfels production prompted shouts of protest from the audience but reviewers interpreted it as a radical critique of religion and religious war. First performed in 1781, the opera set in ancient Greece after the Trojan War deals with human resistance to making sacrifices to the gods.
News of the cancellation drew strong criticism from the government and the main political parties. Culture Minister Bernd Neumann said: "If concern about possible protests already leads to self-censorship then the democratic culture of free speech is in danger."
The Berlin police department said it had analysed security risks resulting from the performance in light of the worldwide protests that followed the publication of Muhammad cartoons in Danish newspapers earlier this year.
"We told the opera that possible disturbances relating to the performance in its planned form couldn't be ruled out," the spokesman said.
The parliamentary leader of the conservative Christian Social Union, Peter Ramsauer, called the cancellation cowardly. "It's an incredible occurrence that has never happened in Germany before in this form." He said the cancellation had nothing to do with respect for religion. "It's naked fear of violence. That's nothing but pure cowardice."
The head of Germany's Islamic Council, Ali Kizilkaya, welcomed the opera's decision, saying it was taking account of Muslim sensitivities.
The cancellation comes ahead of a government-sponsored conference on Wednesday aimed at promoting dialogue with Germany's 3.2 million Muslims.