In a decision handed down this Thursday, November 30, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled inadmissible the application by an association of Christian lawyers, the Asociación de Abogados Cristianos, directed against the Spanish authorities. The applicants had filed a complaint against the artist Abel Azcona, whom they accused of having violated the provisions of the Spanish Penal Code punishing offenses against religions. This artist posed naked in 2015, in a church in Pamplona, next to the word “pedophilia” written on the ground using consecrated wafers. Christian lawyers also sued the city of Pamplona, support and financier of the artistic installation.
This work, called “Amen”, was exhibited in an abandoned church used as a municipal hall by the Pamplona town hall. The installation showed photos of Abel Azcona, completely naked, prostrate in a pose evoking injury and desolation, next to the inscription formed by 242 consecrated hosts that the artist had stolen while attending mass and keeping each time the host which had been distributed to him at the time of communion.
The Catholic Church teaches that after the ritual of consecration on the altar by the priest, these slices of unleavened bread become the body of Jesus Christ, in a mystical renewal of his Passion on the cross. Consequently, the faithful do not grant the same sacredness to hosts depending on whether they have been consecrated or not. After the consecration, the host is intended either to be eaten by the faithful in memory of the Last Supper, or to be kept in the tabernacle, a richly decorated cabinet which testifies to the respect of believers for the "real presence" of God in the churches.
The artist Abel Azcona had also staged the theft of the consecrated hosts by photographing, with a concealed camera, the way in which he had stolen these sacred objects during the masses he had attended. Unsurprisingly, the exhibition aroused sadness among Spanish Catholics. The archbishop of the diocese of Pamplona-Tudela, Mgr Francisco Perez, then denounced "a serious desecration of the Eucharist, a fact which deeply offends the faith and Catholic feelings and violates religious freedom", and called on priests to celebrate masses of reparation.
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Faced with the indignation of the faithful, the mayor of Pamplona Joseba Asiron, who financed the exhibition as part of the support for cultural activities by the municipal council, asked the artist to “reconsider” part of the content of the exhibition , pinned down by a petition and demonstrations - without success. Despite the insistent requests of the Catholics, the councilor did not demand the withdrawal of the exhibition.
A first criminal procedure brought by the Asociación de Abogados Cristianos was closed in 2016, the judge finding that no offense had been committed by the artist, because he would not have had the intention to offend believers and that he only intended to denounce the pedophilia scandals in the Church.
However, in an interview with the Spanish online media CTXT, Abel Azcona explains that he voluntarily chose to use consecrated hosts for his work, and not simple hosts (visually, the difference is of course not discernible): “this m “It was important that the hosts had value in the eyes of believers,” he explains. “If I had not used consecrated hosts, the believers would not have taken to the streets to protest, and the performance would not have been complete,” he adds, seeming to indicate that the offense against the believers and the reactions aroused as a result are an integral part of his work.
The Asociación de Abogados Cristianos has filed two complaints before the ECHR: it accuses the town hall of having organized, financed and then refused to cancel the exhibition, and the Spanish courts, for having dismissed its complaint against the 'artist.
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In its decision of inadmissibility, the ECHR relies above all on a procedural weakness: the applicants, it considers, chose criminal action when they could have turned to administrative justice, in attacking the decision by the municipality of Pamplona to maintain the exhibition despite its duty of “religious neutrality”. The ECHR therefore considers that the Christian lawyers did not exhaust all internal remedies before filing their request. In other circumstances, however, it has judged cases for which all domestic remedies had not been exhausted.
Nicolas Bauer, lawyer at the European Center for Law and Justice (ECLJ), who had sent written observations to the ECHR in support of the request, however regrets this decision of inadmissibility: “in the examination of the second complaint, the CEDH carried out a preliminary examination on the merits and concluded that the Spanish judge was right to dismiss the plaintiffs. However, there are elements in the investigation which show that justice did not take its due measure of the offense committed against Christians. When the investigating judge designates consecrated hosts as simple 'little white objects', he refuses to take into account the sacred value of these hosts in the eyes of the faithful.
Unlike other countries, Spain recognizes and punishes the offense of blasphemy. The Spanish Penal Code indeed contains provisions punishing acts that “offend the feelings of a legally protected religious faith in a church or place of worship, or a religious ceremony” (article 524). It also sanctions “anyone, in order to offend the feelings of members of a religious confession, publicly denigrates their dogmas, beliefs, rites or ceremonies in public, verbally or in writing, or insults, also publicly, those who profess them or practice” (article 525 § 1).
In other circumstances, the ECHR has already recognized in the past the legitimacy of legal provisions preventing blasphemy. As in a judgment in 1996 where she ruled in favor of the British film visa office, which had refused to grant a visa to a film depicting an erotic relationship between Saint Teresa of Ávila and a Christ on the cross. The ECHR then recognized as legitimate criminal provisions prohibiting “a high degree of desecration”, established on the basis of the degree of sacredness of the desecrated object.
As for the photos from the “Amen” exhibition, they were sold by the artist following the media success of his installation in Pamplona (and fueled by the scandal), for an amount of €285,000.