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Eurovision Organizers Reprimand Performers for Wearing Pro-Palestinian Symbols

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Two singers who performed as part of the 68th Eurovision Song Contest in Malmo, Sweden on Tuesday were reprimanded by event organizers for wearing pro-Palestinian symbols.

Opening act performer Eric Saade wore a kaffiyeh—a headscarf that can be a symbol of Palestinian solidarity—on his wrist during the show Tuesday. And Irish contestant Bambie Thug told reporters that same night that contest organizers “ordered” them to change their stage make-up before their semi-final performance because of its pro-Palestine references, according to BBC.

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organizes the international songwriting competition, admonished both performers for donning the attire during what they insist should remain an apolitical event.

An EBU spokesperson tells TIME that Saade didn’t wear a kaffiyeh during his rehearsals, but “put it on without anyone noticing before the live broadcast.”

“We regret that Eric Saade chose to compromise the non-political nature of the event,” the spokesperson says in an emailed statement. “He was aware of the rules that apply when you stand on the Eurovision stage.”

Saade, whose father is of Palestinian origin, is not a contestant this year, but is a former Swedish Eurovision contestant who performed during the show’s opening act Tuesday. “This was just my way of showing a part of my origin,” Saade said in a statement posted to his Instagram story on Wednesday. “I got that keffiyeh from my dad when I was a little boy, to never forget where the family comes from. Back then, I didn’t know it would one day be called a ‘political symbol by EBU. It’s like calling the ‘Swedish Dala horse’ a political symbol… In my eyes, it’s just racism.”

“I just wanted to be inclusive and wear something that is authentic to me - but the EBU seems to think my ethnicity is controversial. It says nothing about me, but everything about them,” he continued.

Read More: Sweden Tightens Security At Eurovision Amid Pro-Palestinian Protests

Bambie Thug, a non-binary artist, initially had the words “Ceasefire” and “Freedom for Palestine” written in an ancient Celtic script known as Ogham on their face and legs as part of their costume make-up, but was told to change the writing before their performance Tuesday, according to The Irish Times.

“It was very important for me because I am pro-justice and pro-peace,” they said during a press conference after the semi-final, as reported by The Irish Times. “Unfortunately I had to change those messages today to ‘Crown the witch’ only, in order from the EBU.”

An EBU spokesperson tells TIME that organizers saw the writing on Bambie Thug’s body during dress rehearsals and that it “contravened Contest rules that are designed to protect the non-political nature of the event.” Organizers discussed it with Bambie Thug, who then agreed to change the text for the live performance, the spokesperson added.

Before the competition, more than 400 Irish artists signed a letter calling for Bambie Thug to boycott Eurovision this year in solidarity with Palestine, according to The Irish Times. The performer responded to the letter via Instagram on March 29, saying that “stepping back now would mean one less pro-Palestinian voice at the contest.” The performer ended up qualifying for the contest’s grand final Tuesday, the first time Ireland has advanced to the final round since 2018.

This year’s competition has generated a lot of controversy related to the war in Gaza. Many activists and viewers have criticized organizers for allowing Israel to participate in the contest, so much so that the official Eurovision website includes a page of Frequently Asked Questions dedicated to addressing this issue. Officials have increased security in Malmo because of the thousands of people expected to protest Israel’s participation in the contest. Pro-Palestinian protests are expected to coincide with the competition’s second semi-final and the grand final Thursday and Saturday, respectively.

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