Outcry follows ‘Muslim Nativity Scene’ despite historically accurate clothing

The controversial Nativity scene that has Mary wearing a white shawl, which some people think is a burqa. (Photo courtesy of the Rev. Franco Corbo.)

After political outcry and personal threats, an Italian priest has replaced a Christmas Nativity scene that critics said depicted Mary, the mother of Jesus, with a Muslim body covering.

The Rev. Franco Corbo, a 76-year-old pastor from the southern town of Potenza, was the subject of a nationwide backlash on TV and social media and received hundreds of abusive telephone calls at his parish as a result of his Nativity scene.

Advertisement

The characters, including Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, were originally shown in Tuareg costumes worn by tribes from the Sahara desert but have now been replaced by African figures from Senegal.

In a Facebook post, the leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League, Matteo Salvini, called the pastor’s actions an act of “madness”:

“The last thing we needed was the ‘Muslim Nativity Scene’ from this parish priest, for whom ISIS is substantially our fault, the Israelis are ugly and evil, and if you dislike the MADONNA IN A BURQA it is YOUR fault for being closed-minded and a fanatic.”

But the priest said the Nativity scene reflected the clothing of Tunisia.

“The holy family was wearing Arab costumes to represent cultural openness and send a message of peace to all cultures,” he said.

He reiterated that the figure of Mary was not wearing a burqa.

“The burqa is black and covers the whole body except for the eyes,” he said. “The statue had a white shawl and a white dress and the face was visible.”

Corbo said his message had been misinterpreted by the media and insisted the characters were not Muslim even though they wore traditional costumes.

Walls surrounded the Nativity scene and above it the priest included the message “Let’s build bridges, not walls.”

For 50 years Corbo said he had drawn on political themes for his annual Nativity scene at his parish of Sts. Anne and Joachim in Potenza.

In previous years he has presented characters affected by earthquakes, environmental disasters and economic exploitation. One year he used the Nativity scene to depict the plight of the “desaparecidos,” those abducted and killed during the dictatorship in Argentina in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“There is so much ignorance,” he said. “The Nativity scene is designed to confront the problems of our time. This year we wanted to deal with the 65 walls that have been built in the world. The most scandalous is the wall built by the Israelis to block the Palestinians.

“Building walls is easy. Creating dialogue is a little difficult.”

(Josephine McKenna is RNS’ Vatican correspondent)

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mary Therese LEMANEK
1 year 4 months ago
It is kitschy to have a "hipster" Nativity scene with mod parents taking selfies because that reflects "reality" but upsetting to portray a more upsetting reality of God with us? He gets is....too bad others do not.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

The news from Ireland and the United States reminds us of Herod, of Pharaoh. What culture betrays its children?
The EditorsMay 26, 2018
A woman religious casts her ballot May 25 in Dublin as Ireland holds a referendum on its law on abortion. Voters went to the polls May 25 to decide whether to liberalize the country's abortion laws. (CNS photo/Alex Fraser, Reuters)
The repeal of Ireland's Eighth Amendment, which guarantees the right to life of the unborn, is passing by a 2-1 margin with most of the votes counted.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
The Secretary of Education stirred up controversy when she said it was up to schools to decide if an undocumented student should be reported to authorities.
J.D. Long-GarcíaMay 25, 2018
Thousands gathered in Dublin May 12 to say "Love Both" and "Vote No" to abortion on demand. They were protesting abortion on demand in the forthcoming referendum May 25. (CNS photo/John McElroy)
“Priests and bishops get verbal abuse by being told, ‘How can you speak for women? You don’t know what it’s like!’”
America StaffMay 25, 2018