Italian Priest Who Faced Backlash Over 'Muslim' Nativity Scene Backs Down

ReutersA traditional nativity scene. An Italian priest came under fire over a different Nativity scene in which the Virgin Mary was portrayed as wearing traditional Muslim clothing

The Italian priest who set up a Christmas Nativity scene with the Virgin Mary depicted in Muslim body covering has replaced it after a widespread backlash.

Rev Franco Corbo, who is 76 and from the southern town of Potenza, came under heavy criticism on television and social media, with hundreds of abusive letters sent to his parish. Some claimed that Corbo had portrayed the mother of Jesus as wearing a burqa.

The leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League, Matteo Salvini, called the pastor's actions "madness" in a Facebook post.

He wrote: "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."

However, the priest said the Nativity scene depicted the clothing of Tunisia. The characters, including Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, were shown in Tuareg costumes worn by tribes from the Sahara desert but have now been replaced by African figures from Senegal, the Religion News Service reported.

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

He insisted that the Mary figure 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 that the characters were not Muslim even though they wore traditional costumes. He added that his message had been misinterpreted by the media.

Above the Nativity scene, which was surrounded by walls, the priest included the message, "Let's build bridges, not walls."

Corbo said that for 50 years he had used different political themes to illustrate Nativity scenes at his parish of Sts. Anne and Joachim in Potenza.

In previous years he has showed figures affected by economic exploitation, earthquakes and environmental disasters.

One year he used the Nativity scene to highlight the plight of the "desaparecidos" – those abducted and killed during the dictatorship in Argentina in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Corbo said: "There is so much ignorance. 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."

He added: "Building walls is easy. Creating dialogue is a little difficult."