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Turkish game show a leap of faith

Convert to religion and win! That's the premise of a new show offering a vacation with every salvation.

A woman holds a mug depicting pictures of Pope Benedict XVI and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, and a model of the Blue Mosque, outside the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George at the Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul, Nov. 30, 2006. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

ISTANBUL — First came "Big Brother," about which many here had their doubts.

Then came "The Big Donor Show," a highly questionable Dutch brainchild in which candidates — not contestants — competed to donate their kidney to a terminally ill patient.

But just when you thought television shows could not get any more outrageous, those wacky Turks launch "Penitents Compete."

The premise of this TV reality show sounds like an old joke: “What do you get when you put a rabbi, a Buddist monk, a Greek Orthodox priest and a Muslim imam in the room with 10 atheists?”

It brings together local leaders of four religions who then try to convert a group of 10 atheists to their respective faiths on live television.

"Penitents Compete"  ("Tovbekarlar Yarısıyor" in Turkish) will air on Turkish television channel Kanal T this September.

And the prize for those who find a new relationship with the almighty? An all-expenses paid pilgrimage to a holy site of their newly chosen religion — Mecca for Muslims, the Vatican for Christians, Jerusalem for Jews and Tibet for Buddhists.

Only true non-believers need apply. A commission of eight theologians will assess the atheist credentials of would-be contestants before deciding whom to accept on the show.

Let’s begin with the objections to this merger of faith and entertainment, from those who accuse it of syndicating salvation. Turkey’s state-run Religious Affairs Directorate has so far refused to provide an imam for the show, arguing that the show’s format trivializes what is meant to be a deeply personal decision.

“Doing something like this for the sake of ratings is disrespectful to all religions. Religion should not be a subject for entertainment programs,” the chairman of the High Board of Religious Affairs, Hamza Aktan, told state news agency Anatolian after news of the planned program emerged.

Besides which, religion is a sensitive subject in predominantly Muslim Turkey because of the country’s strictly secular constitution, which outlaws most displays of faith in public life.

Still others see the show as fueling a widespread intolerance of atheism.