Jordan's top cartoonist faces charges of insulting religion

Emad Hajjaj upset Christians and Muslims alike with his cartoon depicting Jesus "disowning" Greek Orthodox patriarch

Jordanian cartoonist Emad Hajjaj poses for a photo at his office in Amman in March,2000. (Salah Malkawi for The National)
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A renowned cartoonist who depicted Jesus Christ in a cartoon criticising the Greek Orthodox Church is facing court after offending Christians and Muslims alike.

The general prosecutor  of Amman called in Emad Hajjaj for questioning on Tuesday following complaints that he had insulted religion but did not detain him.

"The interrogation is ongoing. The prosecutor heard the testimony of both Hajjaj and the person who filed the complaint," said his lawyer,  Mahmoud Quteishat. "The prosecutor did not detain him. And he will listen to other witnesses and will decide if he wants to refer him to court."

Hajjaj could face charges of insulting religion and inciting sectarian strife and if convicted could be sent to prison for up to three years.

The furore surrounding Hajjaj, who is famous throughout Jordan, stems from a cartoon he published on Sunday on a regional news website, Al Araby Al Jadeed, and his Facebook page which criticised the Greek Orthodox church for selling land in Jerusalem to  Israeli developers. The cartoon depicted Jesus Christ on the cross saying "I am Christ the son of Mary and I disown Patriarch Theophilos III and all of those who were involved with him in selling the noble Greek Orthodox Church to the Israeli occupation. "

Emad Hajjaj said his cartoon was misunderstood and deleted it after it triggered a wave of angry reactions on social media. Christians accused him of defaming religion and trying to ignite discord in a country that is proud of its history of religious tolerance, but struggles to sidestep the violence that has engulfed the region. Hajjaj said he even received death threats.

In comments on Facebook, one (Christian) asked: “Who are you and why are you igniting discord?” Another wrote, ”From my perspective as a Christian, Hajjaj has offended me and the most important symbol in my life.”

One also said Hajjaj should be killed, like Nahed Hattar, the Jordanian writer who was shot dead last year after a cartoon he shared on his Facebook page depicting God and heaven sparked anger in the kingdom.

Muslims were also angered by the depiction of a prophet which is forbidden in Islam and also because they do not believe Jesus was crucified. Some called Hajjaj, who is Muslim, an infidel.

Hajjaj  maintains he was specifically targeting the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem for selling large portions of land in the city as well as Caesarea, Jaffa and Tiberias to private offshore companies. According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which exposed the land sales last month, the lands were sold at extremely low prices to companies whose owners are unknown because they are registered in tax havens.

The report said some 430 dunams (108 acres) of land were sold in Caesarea for $1 million (Dh3.67m), six dunams with commercial tenants at Clock Tower Square in Jaffa went for $1.5 million and an area of Jerusalem's Givat Oranim neighbourhood containing 240 apartments was sold for $3.3 million.


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The angry comments that flooded social media prompted Hajjaj to remove his cartoon and issue a clarification and an apology.

"As an artist who respects all religions, I apologise for any misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the cartoon. I call on everyone to [stay away from] from blowing the case out of proportion,” he said.

Following the complaints, Hajjaj was interrogated by the criminal investigation department of Jordan's Public Security Directorate the day before he was summoned by the general prosecutor.

But the cartoonist has also received support from more liberal Jordanians.

“It is unfortunate that a great artist like Emad Hajjaj had to apologise for a beautiful and bold work which expresses the feeling of many noble people concerning the repeated offences committed by the patriarch,” commented Fathi Kawar, a Christian, a post on Facebook.

Local media reported that Hajjaj had already been charged with insulting religion and with slander but his lawyer insisted that was not the case. However, Hajjaj said he was frustrated by the legal proceedings.

"I've been drawing cartoons for 25 years and I have a noble message as an artist," he told The National. "But I started questioning things in the past two days … anyone can take me to court, people are threatening me for work I have published.

"The case was blown out of proportion. Unfortunately the sensitivities concerning the political atmosphere and terrorism have exposed that there are extremists in other denominations.”