Some months ago Catholics and Protestants in Malaysia were worried that the Film Censorship Board might block release of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” in the predominantly Muslim nation, but according to sources, censors have recently approved of the screening of the movie in Malaysia. However, the government says only Christians will be allowed to view the movie “at designated cinemas,” and without prior advertising.
After its success in the United States, Gibson’s “Passion” movie has reportedly broken box office records in parts of the Middle East, known to many to be the heart of Islam, and has even made its way into Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.
Surprisingly, however, Reuters reported that Gibson and his distributors had not bothered to ask Malaysia for approval to screen his film in local cinemas, assuming the predominantly Muslim nation would ban it. But after local churches appealed to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to see the movie, the censors finally cleared it, but for Christian eyes only.
"It might spark off some religious disagreement in this country," Film Censorship Board spokeswoman Kathy Kok told Reuters, explaining the board's decision to bar a general release.
For many, the decision came as a surprise, especially since almost two-thirds of Malaysia's population follows Islam.
"We thought the movie would be banned because none of the prophets are to be depicted in a movie," said Twentieth Century Fox's Malaysia account manager, Tan Kok Aik.
And according to the Muslim faith, the portrayals of sacred figures such as Jesus—who Muslims consider to be a prophet (but not the crucified Son of God)—are forbidden. It was for this reason that the 1998 screening of the animated movie The Prince of Egypt, which depicts Moses (known in Islam as the prophet Musa), was not permitted.
Now the decision has allowed Malaysia to join the list of predominantly Muslim nations that have allowed the movie to be seen, including Egypt, Qatar, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, and Iran where the movie was a box-office hit. The movie was also shown in Indonesia, but only after the local Film Censorship Board cut some scenes for their excessive violence.
The details of how tickets will be sold have yet to be worked out but they will not be available over the counter and the box-office hit will not be advertised. Instead, churches are likely to become ticket outlets, taking bookings for private screenings at commercial cinemas.
"All the churches could book the tickets through my office," said Reverend Wong Kim Kong of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, who began lobbying the prime minister's office four months ago for the film to be shown. Wong is offering to use the fellowship as a central booking agent that would tally up and pass on church bookings to the film's distributor, Twentieth Century Fox .
Meanwhile, the censor's decision to bar non-Christians from seeing the film has drawn fire from at least one Muslim commentator, writing in the New Straits Times, a newspaper that normally reflects government thinking.
Columnist Rose Ismail suggested Islamic clerics in Malaysia feared Gibson’s movie could lead some Muslim viewers to convert to Christianity. To her, the viewing restrictions reflected a lack of confidence.
"The ban implies that Malaysian Muslims' devotion to Islam is tenuous and shallow; that we are easily seduced by religious beliefs," she wrote.
But regardless of the ban, box office records are unlikely in Malaysia, though Reverend Wong's fellowship estimates 200,000 or more Christians could flock to see the film, once private screenings begin next month.