PARIS — Dozens of Catholics picketed a top Paris theatre Thursday while thousands more held a prayer vigil in protest at a play attacking consumer culture and religion and featuring gory pseudo-crucifixion scenes.
"Golgota Picnic" by Argentinian director Rodrigo Garcia, opened Thursday at the Theatre du Rond Point on the Champs Elysees after a run in the southwestern city of Toulouse, where it drew protests and charges of "Christianophobia".
Some 160 Catholics gathered outside, laying white roses on the ground, under the watch of some 800 police officers mobilised for the occasion.
"This is a peaceful protest," said the auxiliary bishop of Nanterre, Nicolas Brouwet. "All we want is for our faith not to be ridiculed."
The Champs Elysees theatre was braced for a showdown after Catholic fundamentalists -- who have been campaigning in recent months against works they perceive as blasphemous -- vowed to disrupt the play.
Two men linked to the fundamentalist Catholic movement were arrested in the basement of the theatre Saturday as they tried to disable its alarm system.
"These people are crazy," theatre director Jean-Michel Ribes said before the play began.
The French capital was hit in October by fierce protests against a work by Italian dramatist Romeo Castellucci, "On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God".
The Catholic Church had distanced itself from those protests. This time, however, mainstream Christians have also voiced offence.
Answering a rallying call by the Archbishop of Paris Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, some 4,000 Catholic faithful, including some 200 priests, joined a prayer vigil at Notre Dame Cathedral in protest at a play which the archbishop says "insults the figure of Christ".
"Golgota Picnic", a hard-hitting critique of consumer culture as well as religion, is peppered with provocative references to Christanity, with a musical epilogue performed by a naked pianist.
At one point actors make hamburgers out of meat and live worms, while buns litter the stage in an allusion to the bread of Christ.
Two "crucifixion" scenes show an actor being nailed to the floor through his clothes, or lying splayed in a cross while his face is covered with ground meat.
A long monologue describes Christ as a "bloody devil", and the apostles as "12 losers among the millions who listened to Christ".
The Institut Civitas traditionalist movement has warned on its website that Christians will picket the Paris theatre for as long as the play is shown there, from December 8 to 17.
Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe has voiced "indignation" at the threats against the play, and has said Paris authoritites would do all they can to ensure "Golgota Picnic" can go ahead in the name of freedom of expression.
France counts an estimated half a million traditionalist and fundamentalist Catholics, according to the Christian newspaper La Croix.
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