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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's apology during yesterday's cabinet meeting for the comic skit "Like a Virgin" on Lior Shlein's late-night television show on Channel 10 was unnecessary. Though the skit ignited a fierce storm of protest among Christians in Israel and around the world, it is not the government's task to stand in the way of satirical works - be they on television or anywhere else.

Shlein himself apologized the day after the segment aired and asked to be forgiven by those he offended. Yet the controversy had already gathered momentum, and clergymen and legal figures in the Christian community in the Galilee have released strongly worded statements expressing the view that the skit "is not satire, but rather harms the sensitivities of every Christian in Israel and the world over."

The Vatican, which received such a statement, followed suit and claimed that Shlein "made a mockery and blasphemed the sanctity of Jesus and Mary." In response, Olmert said that "if in another country similar things were said about the Jewish religion, there would certainly be an outcry in the Jewish community."

One may have assumed that such an uproar would arise, but it should not prompt an apology from a prime minister. On the contrary: Heads of state ought to defend the right to be artistically creative and to use satire in any form, whether political or philosophical, in an atmosphere of total freedom.

Mocking religion is not a new phenomenon in the arts, nor is the outrage that may follow - whether spontaneous or well planned - which is provoked by works that ridicule the most sacred symbols for millions of believers in every religion and ethnic group.

One similar, memorable incident that sparked the fury of the Christian establishment was the brilliant satiric comedy "Monty Python's Life of Brian," which cast the spiritual father of Christianity in a preposterous light and did not spare even the holiest of religious leaders. Despite the protest against it, the film became a hit, and faithful Christians all over the world enjoyed watching it with the understanding that one may distinguish between its wild interpretation of religious ethos and its clear-cut artistic value.

Shlein may not be Python, but clergymen will always refuse to accept satire, whose very nature is to poke fun at every belief and make a mockery of every sanctified principle. A society that claims to espouse freedom of expression, and the leaders of such a society, are supposed to champion principles that completely differ from those of religious leaders.