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Gibson's movie unlikely box-office hit in Arab world

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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.

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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.