Anything goes at German carnival - except religion

Cologne, Germany - Picture German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a dominatrix, the American eagle with bird flu and the Iranian president in the shape of a nuclear bomb.

At carnival time in Germany anything goes -- except, this year, mocking religion, a victim of the worldwide controversy over cartoons of the Prophet.

Millions of "Narren" or jesters took to the streets on Monday to party, dance and cheer as parades mocking politicians and poking fun at contemporary issues wound through big cities.

In Cologne, home to Europe's biggest carnival parade, some 1.3 million people filled the streets, singing along with marching bands and jumping up to catch candy swirling through the air while keeping a tight grip on their beer bottles.

"Everything is allowed at this time of year and it's a blast. We are thoroughly enjoying it," said Daniel Kretschmer, who came from Hamburg dressed as a nun to watch the parade.

"All year long we have to listen to politicians preaching to us. This is finally a chance to get back at them."

While political satire is encouraged, Cologne revellers took care not to cross the line and religion was a declared no-go zone amid a row over caricatures of the Prophet published first in a Danish newspaper that sparked worldwide protest.

Jacques Tilly, mastermind behind the parade in Duesseldorf that attracted 1 million people, said he regretted the limitation while acknowledging the situation had changed.

"Religion is in my eyes a delusion and hence should be mocked," he said. "The humour depicted on the floats simply needs to have some bite otherwise there is little point."

But one of Duesseldorf float depicted Pope Benedict wearing the jersey of the city's battered football club Fortuna.

And on another float two jesters carried a coffin written "Freedom of Opinion" with a sabre stuck in.


Iran, which the West believes is pursuing a nuclear weapon, featured high on Tilly's agenda with one float depicting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the shape of an atomic bomb.

Last year, Tilly sparked an outcry when he depicted Catholic Cardinal Joachim Meisner setting fire to a woman tied to the stake, with the words "I had an abortion" written on her dress.

But people applauded in 2003 when the parade showed Merkel, then in opposition, coming out of Uncle Sam's backside -- a comment on her perceived support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

This year cheers and laughter erupted in Cologne as a float with a huge Merkel puppet in a tight latex suit cracked a whip -- a symbol of the new chancellor's efforts to waken Germany from economic slumber.

On another float a sickly looking American Eagle lay on its back, thermometer in mouth, with an ice-bag in the form of a deflated globe on its head.

U.S. President George Bush is shown stumbling from one disaster, titled "New Orleans", into another labelled "nuclear conflict". "Iraq" and "Kyoto Protocol" trail behind him.

The German carnival is a version of the Mardi Gras festivals held in different parts of the world including New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro.

In Cologne, Europe's biggest carnival event, the parade featured more than 124 marching bands, 100 floats and 10,000 people distributing some 150 tonnes of candy.

Football is another hot topic in a city that will host five games during the World Cup starting in June, but religion was off limits.

"It is just not normal at the Cologne Rose Monday parade to be blasphemous," said Sigrid Krebs, spokeswoman for the Cologne Carnival Committee.