After box-office hits in the Arab world, the "Passion" film will also soon be released in Malaysia for Christian audiences only.
Malaysia’s population stands at 25 million with two-thirds of it being Muslim. The rest are Indian and Chinese with Christians constituting about 9% of the population and Catholics just over 3%.
Before its release, some Protestant and Catholic groups worried that the Film Censorship Board will disapprove the film showings at theatres. Yet, after the Prime Minister of Malaysia Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi intervened, the movie was approved for "Christians only" and for viewing "at designated cinemas" and without prior advertising.
Since the Islamic religion forbids representation of humans and sacred figures, the "Passion" film's presence may stir controversies. Islam also considers Jesus as a prophet. 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.
Msgr. Paul Tan Chee Ing, the Jesuit-trained bishop of Melaka-Johor, praised the Prime Minister decision but expressed his displeasure over the Home Ministry 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."
Speaking of the restrictions upon the "Passion" film's audiences, Bishop Tan urged the Home Ministry to reconsider their“C"christians-only" policy saying that“i"it would put Malaysia in a bad light in the vibrant, globalised universe that is increasingly looking for positive common ground."
Democratic Action Party MP Teresa Kok of the Parliament 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 even Islamic films shown in the previous years geared toward the muslim audiences and other religious films are without restrictions. The list includes Little Buddha, on the life of Gautama Buddha, 7 Years in Tibet, about the Dalai Lama, and even the Jesus of Nazereth film of the 1970's.
Rose Ismail, a muslim columnist with the New Strait Times, wrote that the decision was probably influenced by the fear that The Passion of the Christ 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."
Meanwhile in other predominantly Muslim countries like Egypt, Qatar, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, and Iran the "Passion" film was a box-office hit. In Indonesia, the local Film Censorship Board cut some scenes for their excessive violence, but otherwise allowed screenings in most places.