07/26/2004, 00.00
MALAYSIA
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"The Passion of the Christ" for Christians-only viewing

Johor bishop critical of restriction: "The movie could be useful in interfaith dialogue."

Johor Baru (AsiaNews) – After box-office records in the Arab world, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ will soon be released in Malaysia, but for "Christian eyes only." Some months ago Catholics and Protestants were worried that the Film Censorship Board might block its release, but following the intervention of Malaysia's Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi the movie was approved for "Christians only," for viewing "at designated cinemas," and without prior advertising.

Malaysia's population stands at 25 million, two thirds of which are Muslims. The rest are Indian and Chinese with Christians constituting about 9% of the population and Catholics just over 3%.

Islam forbids the representation of animals and humans, including sacred figures. Its holy book, the Qu'ran, considers Jesus a prophet, not the crucified Son of God, and for this reason does not in principle allow his depiction. For this reason, the 1998 screening of the animated movie The prince of Egypt, which depicts Moses, known in Islam as the prophet Musa, was not allowed. In light of this precedent, Protestant churches were glad that at least Christians could see the movie.

Speaking to the Herald (a Kuala Lumpur paper), Msgr. Paul Tan Chee Ing, the Jesuit-trained bishop of Melaka-Johor, praised the Prime Minister's decision but expressed his displeasure over the Home Ministry's religious restrictions. "I am perplexed and disappointed by the decision," he said. "If the Malaysian government is honest and serious about promoting racial and religious tolerance amongst its citizenry, it must adopt an open approach to the beliefs, values and cultures of all people of goodwill."

"We must not exaggerate our differences negatively," he added. Instead, "we should underline our similarities and the film The Passion of the Christ could be a wonderful jumping-off point for inter-religious dialogue to enhance mutual understanding and acceptance of each other."

Bishop Tan called upon the Home Ministry to reconsider the "Christians-only" restriction saying that "it would put Malaysia in a bad light in the vibrant, globalised universe that is increasingly looking for positive common ground."

Parliament has also become involved in the controversy. Democratic Action Party MP Teresa Kok said she was surprised and saddened by the religious restriction. "Does this mean," she stated, "that the government is going to implement a policy where movies concerning Islam or Islamic historical figures can only be watched by Muslims? That movies about Buddhism and the Buddha may only be watched by Buddhists and movies related to Hinduism may only be watched by Hindus?"

Ms. Kok pointed out that movies about religious figures were previously shown in Malaysian cinemas without restrictions. The list includes Little Buddha, on the life of Gautama Buddha, 7 Years in Tibet, about the Dalai Lama, and, back in the 1970s, Jesus of Nazareth.

Ms. Kok called the decision regressive and urged the government to review its decision and allow the screening of The Passion of the Christ in all the cinemas of the country. She suggested that the same principle should apply to movies involving religion and religious figures like Buddha and Prophet Muhammad. She ended by saying that "the people of Malaysia should be free to watch any movie of their choice."

Many Muslims too are not convinced of the appropriateness of the decision. Rose Ismail, a columnist with the New Strait Times, wrote that the decision was probably influenced by the fear Islamic clerics have that The Passion of the Chris might push Muslims to convert to Christianity. "The ban implies that Malaysian Muslims' devotion to Islam is tenuous and shallow; that we are easily seduced by other religious beliefs."

In predominantly Muslim countries like Egypt, Qatar, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, and Iran the movie was a box-office hit. In Bahrein, the movie was prohibited, but in Indonesia, the local Film Censorship Board cut some scenes for their excessive violence, but otherwise allowed it to be seen everywhere.

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