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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Artworks depicting Osama bin Laden in a Christ-like pose and a statue of the Virgin Mary covered in a burqa have caused a stir in Australia after they were showcased in a prestigious religious art competition.
"Bearded Orientals: Making the Empire Cross" by Priscilla Bracks is a "double vision" print that depicts both Jesus and bin Laden.
Luke Sullivan's "The Fourth Secret of Fatima" is a statue of Mary, her head and torso obscured by a blue burqa like the one Afghan women had to wear under the militant Taliban.
The artworks were among more than 500 entries in the Blake Prize for Religious Art, and have been included in an exhibition at the National Art School in Sydney.
"The choice of such artwork is gratuitously offensive to the religious beliefs of many Australians," Australian Prime Minister John Howard told Thursday's Daily Telegraph newspaper.
Opposition Labor leader Kevin Rudd also criticised the artwork. "I accept you know people can have artistic freedom, but I find this painting off, off in the extreme. I understand how people would be offended by it," he said.
Australia's 20 million population is overwhelmingly Christian and the print was condemned by the Australian Christian Lobby.
"It's really unfortunate people take liberties with the Christian faith they wouldn't take with other religions," Lobby spokeswoman Glynis Quinlan told reporters.
Cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohammad in European newspapers in 2006 sparked violent protests by Muslims around the world, who saw them as an affront to Islam.
A debate about the Australian artworks attracted almost 400 comments on the news.com.au Web site.
"One could only compare Osama with Saddam or Hitler, but Jesus came to Earth not to terrorise, but to save mankind," wrote a blogger named Shirley.
Another blogger, Marc, praised the artworks' shock value. "Art is supposed to provoke thought and debate...to offend you and make you think," he wrote.
"As for Osama being depicted in a Christ-like pose, the image of Christ as a white Anglo-Saxon male is incorrect anyway, if anything he would have looked very much like Osama and less like a European man (he was after all Jewish and born in the Middle East)," he said.
Spokesperson for the Blake Prize, Reverend Rod Pattenden, defended he controversial selection for this year's competition, saying the aim of the prize was to encourage discussion about spirituality in society -- the goal of both artists.
"It poses the question of what's the future of religion. They are hegemonic in their nature, they can be all encompassing and powerful," Sullivan, who created the statue, told the Telegraph.
Bracks said she hoped some viewers might see this as a juxtaposition of good and evil, and realise her concerns about bin Laden's possible glorification as a cult figure.
"I'm interested in having a discussion, and asking questions about how we think about our world and what we accept, and what we don't accept," Bracks told Australian radio.
This year's A$15,000 (6,109 pounds) Blake Prize was awarded on Wednesday to Shirley Purdie for her "Stations of the Cross".