In his "alternative Christmas message", President Ahmadinejad criticised world leaders for their lack of spirituality and said that Christ would oppose "warmongers, occupiers, terrorists and bullies the world over" if he were alive today. Mr Ahmadinejad was the first secular president to be elected in Iran for 24 years but his aggressive rhetoric and desire to build a nuclear arsenal has caused worries across the Middle East. In March last year Iran captured 15 Royal Navy sailors on duty in the Gulf and paraded them on television before releasing them, 13 days later, as an “Easter gift” to the British people. Channel 4's decision to give the Iranian president a platform has been criticised on the grounds of his country's poor human rights record, his denial of the Holocaust and his desire to see Israel "wiped off the map". The speech was broadcast at 7.15pm rather than clashing with the Queen's speech on the other terrestrial channels. The president used the message to call Christ, who is considered a Muslim prophet, a "standard-bearer of Justice". Speaking in Farsi with English subtitles, Mr Ahmadinejad said: "The crises in society, the family, morality, politics, security and the economy which have made life hard for humanity and continue to put great pressure on all nations have come about because the prophets have been forgotten, the almighty has been forgotten and some leaders are estranged from god." He finished by praying for the New Year to be "a year of happiness, prosperity, peace and brotherhood for humanity". But the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had made "a series of appalling anti-Semitic statements" during his time in office. A spokesman added: "The British media are rightly free to make their own editorial choices, but this invitation will cause offence and bemusement not just at home but amongst friendly countries abroad." The Israeli Embassy branded the Christmas message a "sick and twisted irony" and Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosor said: "In Iran, converts to Christianity face the death penalty. It is perverse that this despot is allowed to speculate on the views of Jesus, while his government leads Christ's followers to the gallows." He said Channel 4's decision to broadcast the message was a "scandal and a national embarrassment" and in "its search for ratings and shock factor, Channel 4 has lost its ethical way". Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, of Liberal Judaism, said: "The Queen's speech is so benign that it is worthwhile having something thought-provoking. "But doing a sort of lucky dip to pick out a controversial character, then allowing him to make a lovey-dovey speech, that this character is being allowed to dress himself up as a kind of Father Christmas, that is problematic." However, Channel 4 received support from Ben Summerskill, director of gay rights group Stonewall who said that the speech was "an important way of reminding him that there are some countries where free speech is not repressed". Channel 4 head of news and current affairs Dorothy Byrne defended the decision to broadcast the message. She said: "As the leader of one of the most powerful states in the Middle East, President Ahmadinejad's views are enormously influential. "As we approach a critical time in international relations, we are offering our viewers an insight into an alternative world view. "Channel 4 has devoted more airtime to examining Iran than any other broadcaster and this message continues a long tradition of offering a different perspective on the world around us." The broadcaster courted controversy with its alternative message since it was introduced in 1993. In 2006 a veiled British Muslim woman used the message to attack Jack Straw for his criticism of the niqab [face veil] earlier the same year.
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