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The Passion of the Christ generates strong reactions in Middle East
Mel Gibson's controversial film lauded by some, banned by others


Compiled by Daily Star staff
Monday, April 05, 2004

The Passion of the Christ generates strong reactions in Middle East

Mel Gibson's big screen depiction of Jesus Christ's final hours has been embraced by Arab Muslims and Christians alike, with some dismissing allegations The Passion of the Christ is anti-Semitic and others making clear such charges are part of its appeal.

Hanan Nsour, a 21-year-old Jordanian wearing the veil of a strict Muslim, was moved to tears by The Passion when she saw it at one of several Amman theaters where it's playing to large audiences. Nsour said the movie "unmasked the Jews' lies and I hope that everybody and everywhere, they turn against the Jews."

The Islamic Action Front, a hard-line Jordanian political party, says Muslims should spend their leisure time reading the Koran or praying, not watching movies. But the group's secretary-general, Hamza Mansoor, said he had no objection to The Passion being screened in Jordan.

"The Jews are the most upset with the movie because it reveals their crimes against the prophets, the reformers and whoever contradicts their opinions," Mansoor said.

In this part of the world, anti-Semitic speech is often portrayed as inevitable by-product of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, after watching The Passion in the West Bank, compared Jesus' pain during the crucifixion to Palestinians' suffering.

In places like Jordan, Syria and Lebanon where the film opened in March, it has drawn large and enthusiastic crowds. Elsewhere, Arabs eagerly await its release.

A top Shiite cleric in Kuwait, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Mehri, has urged his government to let the film be shown in theaters there because it "reveals crimes committed by Jews against Christ."

Films with Christian themes are not usually shown in conservative Muslim Kuwait. A strict interpretation of Islam forbids artistic portrayals of the prophets, and Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet but do not consider him the son of God or accept the story of the resurrection.

The dean of Kuwait University's Islamic Law College, Mohammed al-Tabtabai, has issued a religious edict, that Muslims shouldn't watch The Passion because Muslims reject the idea of an actor portraying Jesus.

Pirated copies of the film are nonetheless being circulated in Kuwait.

Bahrain banned The Passion because it depicts Jesus, according to that Gulf nation's Information Ministry. The ban applies to movie theater screenings as well as tapes or DVDs.

The Gibson movie opened Tuesday in Egypt, where the government censors made no changes but because of its violence, said viewers must be at least 18 to see it.

Egyptian Muslim clerics who might be expected to object were taking a hands-off approach to the film.

"My understanding is that it is about the last 12 hours in the life of Christ, which involve Christians and Jews. Muslims have nothing to do with that," said Sheik Abdel Zaher Mohammed Abdel-Razeq, whose office at Cairo's Al-Azhar University offers guidance on which films as well as books and other materials Muslims should watch.

Censors have cleared the movie for release in the United Arab Emirates, where a Gulf News editorial gushed that "the film is so close to the human condition in its depiction of betrayal, greed, falsehood, forgiveness and love."

In Lebanon, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, head of the Maronite Church in Lebanon, had high praise for the film. "It is not exaggerated and portrays reality as it is. It is a very sad film and we did not feel there was any anti-Semitism there," Sfeir told reporters.

The film is also playing in Syria, one of the few places in the world that still has speakers of Aramaic, the ancient language spoken by some characters in The Passion. Salim Abraham, a 37-year-old Syrian Christian journalist who speaks fluent Aramaic, was among the first viewers. "I was so very happy to see my language, for the first time ever, being spoken on the big screen and in such a powerful movie," he said.

However the film was most enthusiasticly received in the Palestinian Territories.

Many Palestinians, locked in conflict against Israel, say they hope The Passion will rouse angry emotions against Jews by Christian audiences around the world.

"People are calling me from everywhere in the West Bank ... to ask for copies of the movie," said the owner of a Gaza city video shop, which sells pirated copies of new release movies.

The shop owner, who declined to be identified, said he received a flood of telephone calls after placing an advertisement for the film in a leading Palestinian newspaper.

In Israel, the local agent for the film's international distributor Icon Entertainment said it passed on its option to show the film, but declined to specify its reasons other than to say the movie was "sensitive."

Industry insiders in Israel say local distributors are not interested in the film because of allegations it is anti-Semitic and concerns they are unlikely to recoup their investment as films about Jesus draw few movie-goers in the Jewish state. - Agencies

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