Jewish groups were up in arms today when it was revealed that Channel 4's "alternative" Christmas Day broadcast is to be delivered by President Ahmadinejad of Iran.
Mr Ahmadinejad's speech will go out at 7.15pm, four hours after the Queen's traditional Christmas Day message is broadcast on the main channels. His message is a spiritual one but includes some more nakedly political elements - including the implicit claim that if Jesus Christ were alive today, he would oppose US hegemony.
“If Christ was on Earth today undoubtedly he would stand with the people in opposition to bullying, ill-tempered and expansionist powers,” Mr Ahmadinejad will say in a speech to be shown in Farsi with English subtitles.
All well and good, but why am I suddenly terrified?
“If Christ was on Earth today undoubtedly he would hoist the banner of justice and love for humanity to oppose warmongers, occupiers, terrorists and bullies the world over. If Christ was on Earth today undoubtedly he would fight against the tyrannical policies of prevailing global economic and political systems, as He did in His lifetime.”
It is no the first time that the broadcaster has courted controversy since Quentin Crisp delivered Channel 4's first alternative Christmas message in 1993. In 2006 a fully-veiled British-born Muslim woman used the message to attack Jack Straw, then Home Secretary, for his criticism of the niqab (face veil) earlier the same year.
Stephen Smith, director of the Holocaust Centre, said Mr Ahmadinejad's message should be treated with caution. The Iranian President has repeatedly called the Holocaust a “myth” and called for the annihilation of Israel.
Mr Smith said: “Many of his political and historical views are very dangerous and do not uphold the views in his message. I think this benign message is deception. People need to be alert to the fact that this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Henry Grunwald QC, president of the Board of Deputies, added: "The appearance on our television screens of a man whose prejudices are so well-documented and who has openly called for the eradication of another member country of the United Nations is an affront to decency.
"To invite him to deliver a Christmas message, even a so-called alternative one, fills me with disgust. Whatever he may say in his 'message', his words on other occasions and his actions towards minority groups in Iran should have disqualified him from filling this television spot."
But Dorothy Byrne, Channel 4's head of news and current affairs, defended the choice. "As the leader of one of the most powerful states in the Middle East, President Ahmadinejad’s views are enormously influential," she said. “As we approach a critical time in international relations, we are offering our viewers an insight into an alternative world view."
A Channel 4 spokesman said that the message was filmed in Iran but it was kept top secret in case it fell through at the last minute. The message will be broadcast several hours after the Queen's to avoid any implications of equivalence between the monarch and the Iranian leader.
Britain and Iran have rocky relations, particularly over Iran’s disputed nuclear programme.
In October, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, warned of a possible nuclear arms race in the Middle East if Iran was allowed to press ahead unchecked with a uranium enrichment programme.
In response, Tehran accused Miliband, who is Jewish, of having “strong ties with Zionists”.
Relations between the two countries hit a low last year when Iran seized 15 British sailors and marines in disputed waters in the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iran and Iraq. The troops were released safely nearly two weeks later after a televised meeting with Mr Ahmadinejad.
The Queen is to use this year's broadcast to acknowledge the impact of the credit crunch on many families as recession starts to bite.
“Christmas is a time for celebration, but this year it is a more sombre occasion for many,” she will say, emphasing the need for cutbacks. “Some of those things which could once have been taken for granted suddenly seem less certain and naturally give rise to feelings of insecurity."