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World's churches seek best ways to counter the 'Code'

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 2006


In one respect they all agree: ignoring it is not an option.

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Beyond that almost self-evident truth, however, church leaders worldwide are divided over just how they should respond to "The Da Vinci Code," as the blockbuster film opens around the planet this week.

Some are demanding that censors ban the film, or cut scenes that they say undermine Christian beliefs.

Others are angrily advocating boycotts to protest what they see as an attack on the Roman Catholic church.

And then again, priests from both the Protestant and Catholic traditions are seizing the occasion as a "teachable moment," using everything from scratch-cards in Britain to an animated version of Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" in Australia to make their points.

"We see it as an opportunity to put God and Jesus on the agenda," explains Margaret Rodgers, a spokeswoman for the Anglican church in Australia, which has launched a cinema advertising campaign around the film. "Over the tea trolley at work, it's going to be a hot topic of conversation for a while."

"It's a match we could win or lose," says Philippe Joret, a French evangelical preacher who has been challenging The Da Vinci Code's theories at public meetings since September. "But it's a match worth playing."

The ideas explored in the fictional thriller, which has sold more than 40 million copies in more than 40 languages, are expected to find an even wider audience with the film starring Hollywood actor Tom Hanks and French actress Audrey Tautou.

The book has upset many Christians by suggesting that Jesus fathered a child by Mary Magdalene, the first in a line of Christly descendants still extant today, and that the Catholic church has covered this up for 2,000 years. Mixing fact and fiction in a way that religious leaders say might confuse readers, the book also suggests that Christ's divinity was an idea that the Emperor Constantine imposed on the Council of Nicea in 325 AD for political reasons.

Branding the novel "obstinately anti-Christian," top Vatican official Archbishop Angelo Amato - a close confidante of Pope Benedict XVI - called three weeks ago for a boycott of the film.

Cardinal Francis Arinze, the Nigerian who heads the Vatican's office on liturgy, went even further in a church-backed documentary released Tuesday titled "A Masterful Deception." Christians should not just "forgive and forget" insults to the founder of their religion, he said, but should react, possibly by taking legal action against the film.

Vatican officials have been "unusually outspoken and aggressive" in their attacks on "The Da Vinci Code," says John Allen, Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.

They have not gone as far as church leaders in Jordan, however, where Archbishop Hanna Nour has called on the government to ban the film, or in Thailand, where a group of Protestant leaders has asked government censors to cut the last 15 minutes of the movie, which concludes that Jesus has heirs alive today.

In India, one Catholic activist has gone on what he says is a "hunger strike until death" unless the film is banned.

Indian Christians opposed to the film have won support from an umbrella or- ganization of Islamic clerics in Bombay who labeled the film "blasphemous" because it spreads "lies" about Jesus Christ. "Muslims in India will help their Christian brothers protest this attack on our common religious belief," Maulana Mansoor Ali Khan, general secretary of the All-India Sunni Jamiyat-ul-Ulema, told Reuters news agency.

A different approach

In the Philippines, however, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila has taken a different approach, even though he calls the film "blasphemous."