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Who killed Christ?

Across the United States last week thousands of Christian pastors and priests sat down in front of their television sets to watch a special hour-long broadcast on a Christian cable channel. The subject was Mel Gibson’s controversial film about the death of Christ.

But the objective was not just to watch a clip from the movie and an interview with Gibson. It was instead to learn how to use The Passion as a religious tool, how to use it to convert people and how to plan for the film’s release in just two weeks. For many Christian Americans, The Passion will soon no longer be just a film. It will be a religious experience.

For some, that experience will be a bitter one. Even before its release the film has stirred an intense debate in the country’s many Christian churches, raising controversial issues that have dogged Church history for millennia. Some critics have labelled it anti-Semitic because they are disturbed by its brutal depiction of Christ’s death at the hands of the Jewish authorities in first-century Jerusalem.

Others believe it may also prompt a re-examination by many Americans of Jesus’s identity as a Jewish preacher and the complex relationship between Judaism and the birth of Christianity.

The Passion has been seized on by American Christians as the biggest marketing opportunity in their history. In Plano, Texas, one Baptist church has hired out an entire 20-screen cinema for the February 25 opening night. In Costa Mesa, California, local congregations have had their services cancelled on the opening weekend. Instead they will be taken to the cinema to see the film.

The Catholic League has already given away 3 000 discounted tickets. Christian marketing firms are preparing to distribute tens of millions of tracts, prayer cards, CDs and even door hangers, all bearing images or messages from the film.

One Californian marketing firm, called Outreach, is coaching church leaders on how to blanket-buy cinema tickets for the film, organise mass viewings and distribute the film’s literature around their neighbourhoods. Daniel Southern, the president of an evangelical firm, the American Tract Society, said the film is ”one of the greatest opportunities for evangelism in 2 000 years”.

But it does not stop there. A concentrated campaign of showing the film to carefully selected Christian audiences has produced the sort of ”buzz” that Hollywood executives would usually pay millions of dollars for. Gibson has staged screenings for at least 10 000 pastors and other Christian leaders over the past two months. At one screening, 300 Jesuit priests watched the film in California.

”I think it is going to be significant in the whole history of Christianity,” said Louis Giovino, a director at the Catholic League. Giovino has seen the film and said it struck him as so powerful that it could be used as a tool for conversion.

”It is definitely going to impact on people. It is the most powerful movie that I have ever seen. If I pray, I now use images from the film,” he said.

Even the film’s critics accept that it is going to have a huge impact on Christians across the world.

”More people will see this in the next three months than saw traditional Passion plays over the past 2 000 years,” said Abraham Foxman, president of the Anti-Defamation League, which believes that the film could cause anti-Semitism.

Controversy has long dogged the film. It is Gibson’s personal project and he has poured $25-million of his own fortune into making it. He also stunned Hollywood by deciding to make the film entirely in Aramaic and Latin, the authentic languages of the Middle East at the time of Christ. He even resisted the idea of using English subtitles, but later relented and has inserted them into the movie.

Gibson also drew the wrath of elements of the Vatican last month, after producers for the film claimed the pope had hailed it with the phrase ”it is as it was” after a private viewing in Rome. Vatican officials later tried to backtrack from the comments, saying that the pope never commented on art.

But the true controversy surrounding The Passion is the allegation that it blames Jewish people for killing Christ. Historically many anti-Semites have used this ”blood guilt” argument as a justification for attacks on Jews.

”We have a problem here. Already one quarter of Americans believe Jews killed Jesus, and that’s before this movie comes out,” said Foxman, who secretly attended a Christian screening of the film in Florida.

The Passion follows a literal interpretation of the Gospels. It depicts their betrayal of Jesus by the Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob.

”The Jews and a group of sadistic Roman soldiers are the only ones portrayed as evil. The Jews make bloodthirsty calls for Jesus’s death on a continuous basis,” Foxman said.

Gibson is a follower of an obscure ultra-traditionalist Catholic sect that rejects many recent reforms of the Catholic Church, does not recognise the current Pope and still conducts Mass in Latin. Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson, also stoked up problems when he told one interviewer that the Vatican reforms of the 1960s had been a ”Masonic plot backed by the Jews”.

Gibson has vehemently denied any anti-Semitism in the film, saying that it is a faithful interpretation of scripture. But he raised eyebrows when he claimed that he witnessed agnostics and Muslims on the movie set convert to Christianity during production. He has also warned of a ”dark force” that tried to interrupt screenings and told how actor Jim Caviezel, who plays Jesus, was struck by lightning during filming.

In a bid to defuse some of the tension around the film’s release, Gibson last week wrote to the Anti-Defamation League after reportedly deleting a key scene in which a priest calls down an eternal curse on the Jews.

”You are a man of integrity and a man of faith and I do not take your concerns lightly … all who ever breathe life on this Earth are children of God and my most binding obligation to them, as a brother in this waking world, is to love them,” Gibson wrote.

However, Gibson did not address any of Foxman’s specific questions about the film. Foxman has now written back to Gibson asking that he include a ”post-script” in the film that will ask its viewers not to come away with anti-Semitic feelings.

”Your words do not mitigate our concerns about the potential consequences of your film … How will the film be viewed by others? Could the images of your film be used by those who are disposed toward hatred to harden their hearts?”

Foxman is still convinced that the film will play into a rise in anti-Semitic attacks across the world, though he accepts that Gibson himself is not at all anti-Semitic.

”He has a very strong belief. But it is others we are worried about. We just fear that people will come away from watching this and blame the Jews,” he said.

But many Christians dismiss Foxman’s concerns.

”Anything like this is going to get resistance. But it is ridiculous. I have seen the movie too, and I did not see any hatred of the Jews,” said Giovino.

One thing is certain though: the hype surrounding the film is going to ensure a box-office smash. Experts predict Gibson will recoup his $25-million investment on the opening weekend alone. — Guardian Unlimited Â

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