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Controversy and curiosity have followed Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” to the Middle East. Critics and publics alike are debating its stances on Semitism, even as cinemas across the Arab world screen the film to box-office success.

Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are all showing the film uncensored, according to a story from the San Francisco Chronicle’s Foreign Service. Ticket sales have been good.

For example, “The Passion” opened March 31 in the UAE, where it has easily set a new box-office record, according to an AFP news service article. In its first few days of release, the movie sold 66,321 tickets; the previous record was held by “The Matrix Reloaded” at 59,000.

Other countries in the Arab world have either banned the film or are still undecided.

Kuwait, for example, is undecided. The AFP article said the country fears the film will fan flames between Sunni Muslims, who oppose the film, and Shiite Muslims, who favor it.

The main objection to the film in Arab countries has to do with a prohibition against portraying prophets on film, and Muslims consider Jesus Christ a prophet. Such reasoning kept the animated “Prince of Egypt”—depicting Moses, another prophet to Muslims—out of theaters in much of the Arab world.

Yet, the prohibition hasn’t prevented “The Passion” from finding distribution in the Middle East, and several observers think the film’s green light has to do with its alleged anti-Semitic angle.

Mustafa Darwish, a film critic and former president of the Egypt Censorship Authority, told the Chronicle that “The Passion” is “getting a very special treatment,” noting that its portrayal of Jesus Christ would normally be grounds for censorship in Arab countries.

“They (the censorship authorities) think the film is anti-Semitic,” Darwish told the Chronicle. “That’s why they are giving it such privilege.”

Some viewers are indeed seeing the film as anti-Semitic. The Associated Press quoted one 21-year-old Muslim as saying the film “unmasked the Jews’ lies and I hope that everybody, everywhere, turns against the Jews.” Other viewers and critics have voiced similar opinions in other publications.

The AP story went on to say, “In the Arab world, openly voiced anti-Semitism—and by extension the warm reception for “The Passion”—is bound up in the Arab conflict with Israel.”

In fact, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat have seen the film. An aid to Arafat reportedly quoted the leader, who likened Jesus’ suffering to that of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis.

Habib Malik, professor of history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, sees a link as well between the film’s popularity in the Middle East and its portrayal of Jews.
“Word got around that this movie was upsetting a lot of people in the Jewish community in the West, and people here are predisposed to be anti- Israel, and anti-Jewish in general, and I think that’s one of the reasons why people have flocked to see it,” he told the Chronicle.

Nevertheless, an editorial in the Gulf News, an English-language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, praised the UAE for its decision to forgo censorship.

“The UAE must be complimented for allowing the film to be screened,” the editorial read. “The authorities have not only afforded a considerable number of Christian expatriates an opportunity to see the film, but also recognised artistic freedom.”

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.

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