BEIRUT, LEBANON — Gone was the incessant ringing of mobile phones and the loud background chitchat of patrons typical of the Beirut moviegoing experience.
Instead, the audience sat in rapt silence, punctuated by moments of sobbing.
"It was very hard to watch because of all the blood, but as a Christian I am glad I saw it. I think this is how it really happened," said Nicole Shaker.
Mel Gibson's controversial movie "The Passion of the Christ," is breaking box office records across the Middle East. With the approach of Easter, Arab Christians identify primarily with the religious message. But it's the film's popularity among Muslims - even though it flouts Islamic taboos - that's turning it into a phenomenon.
Islam forbids the depiction of a prophet, and Koranic verses deny the crucifixion ever occurred. For those reasons, the film is banned in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain. It's also banned in Israel - but for other reasons.
Many Muslims see political parallels between the Jewish treatment of Jesus in the film and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians today.
As a result, "The Passion of the Christ," with its two hours of slow-motion bloodletting, is posting record sales in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. "It has beaten all records," says Johnny Masri, general manager of Prime Pictures, the movie's Middle East distributors. "It's more popular than Titanic and the James Bond films. We completely underestimated the huge success this movie would have."
Since being released on March 18, more than 214,000 people have watched "The Passion," he says - a substantial figure for this nation of less than 4 million inhabitants. Even Lebanese President Emile Lahoud is a fan, having expressed "strong admiration" for the movie's "pure objectivity." Censors in Lebanon closely scrutinize movies with religious themes, wary of causing offense or controversy in this multisectarian society. "The Life of Brian," Monty Python's irreverent 1979 spoof on the life of Jesus, remains banned in Lebanon to this day. Similarly, the 1998 animated movie "Prince of Egypt" was banned in Egypt for depicting Moses, a prophet.
But Mr. Gibson's homage to the final 12 hours of Jesus' life was passed by the censors, after winning the approval of Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church who was granted a special preview to assess its moral content and suitability for children. "Very sad, extremely impressive," was the cardinal's verdict.
With Christians accounting for about 30 percent of Lebanon's population, the movie has a particular appeal here. Cinemas in Christian neighborhoods of Beirut have doubled the daily number of screenings to cope with the demand.
Some Christians say they see in the movie's graphic representation of Jesus' agony a metaphor for their own hardships in Syrian-dominated Lebanon. Since the end of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war and the consolidation of Syrian hegemony, Lebanese Christians have felt increasingly marginalized from the political mainstream. Populist Christian opposition leaders languish in jail or exile and tens of thousands of Christians have emigrated overseas, further weakening the community. "We are suffering under the Syrians like Jesus suffered under the Jews," said Tony Choukheir after watching the movie. Yehya Sadowski, professor of politics at the American University of Beirut, says that the movie's "intensely Catholic" depiction of Jesus' fate would resonate with Lebanese Christians.
But the movie is also doing well in Muslim areas of Lebanon and in the rest of the Arab world.
Islam reveres Jesus as an important prophet, although Muslims do not subscribe to the crucifixion or the resurrection. But the movie's popularity with many Muslims has more to do with hostility toward Israel.
Some Muslims who have seen "The Passion" even equate the death of Jesus with the death of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual leader of the Palestinian Hamas movement, who was assassinated in Gaza last month.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat recently viewed the film with Catholic leaders. Afterwards an aide said, "The Palestinians are still daily being exposed to the kind of pain Jesus was exposed to during his crucifixion."
Comments like that have alarmed Jewish groups, who accuse Gibson of inflaming anti-Semitic sentiment.
Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at Jerusalem's Shalem Center and an activist in several interfaith dialogue groups, saw "The Passion" while visiting the United States. He says he has serious concerns over how the film is being perceived in the Arab world.
"I have no doubt that the film is anti-Semitic both in intent and effect, but I'm very wary of some Jewish organizations' reactions to it," he says. "It needs to be more nuanced. When an evangelical in Colorado Springs sees it, he doesn't see anti-Semitism. But when Yasser Arafat sees it and calls it an important historic event, he's responding to that anti-Semitism. And the fact that it's becoming a major hit in the Arab world, that has consequences.
" 'The Passion' is where Mel Gibson and Yasser Arafat meet, and it isn't bound by a love of Jesus," he adds.
The movie feeds the increasing anti-Semitism in the Arab world, says Professor Sadowski.
"This was never the case traditionally but [anti-Semitism] is gradually becoming a factor in the Arab-Israeli conflict," he says. "Many Muslims find the depiction of Jews in this film reassuring."
Still, most moviegoers here say that charges of anti-Semitism have been inflated. But for a society that has grown accustomed to seeing Arabs routinely depicted in movies as greedy oil sheikhs, unscrupulous businessmen, or terrorists, many view the portrayal of Jews as "bad guys" as a refreshing change.
"I think it has become accepted for Arabs to be shown as horrible people, but the Jews are never shown like that because they are so strong and powerful in Hollywood," says Rula Fayyad, a university researcher in Beirut. "I don't think the film was anti-Semitic."
• Staff writer Ilene Prusher contributed to this report from Jerusalem.