Christians Challenge Malaysia's Selective Ban on 'The Passion'

"There are differences in doctrinal teachings between Islam and Christianity. But that doesn’t mean other religious communities shouldn’t be free to watch"
( [email protected] ) Jul 29, 2004 05:45 PM EDT

The Malaysian government’s decision to limit Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ “to Christian eyes only” sparked criticism from Christians and Muslims alike.

"We are not in agreement that this should be restricted to Christians only," said Rev. Dr Hermen Shastri, the general secretary of the Council of Churches in Malaysia.

The Passion, which depicts the twelve hours that leads up to Jesus’ crucifixion in graphic detail, was initially banned from the Muslim-majority country on the grounds that it could arouse “sensitivities” among Muslims who view Jesus not as the Son of God but rather a minor prophet.

The government later lifted the ban upon the local churches’ appeal to the prime minister. However, using the same claims, the government restricted viewing rights to Christians only.

"It might spark off some religious disagreement in this country," Film Censorship Board spokeswoman Kathy Kok said, explaining the board's decision to bar a general release last week.

Rev. Shastri disagreed with the excuse, saying that the government could easily advise Muslims to avoid the film rather than banning it from the public.

"There are differences in doctrinal teachings between Islam and Christianity. But that doesn’t mean that if one religious community disagrees with an interpretation, other religious communities such as Hindus and Buddhists shouldn’t be free to watch the film,” said Shastri during the opening press conference at the World Council of Churches Faith and Order plenary commission in Kuala Lumpur, on July 28.

"This goes against the grain of fostering inter-religious understanding, a cornerstone of Malaysian social life since the independence of our country. We have expressed our displeasure and made our appeal,” continued Shastri, who added, “We see the movie as we would any other Hollywood movie.”

Muslim columnist Rose Ismail also expressed her disdain to the film’s selective ban.

"The ban implies that Malaysian Muslims' devotion to Islam is tenuous and shallow; that we are easily seduced by religious beliefs," she wrote in her commentary in the Malaysian daily newspaper New Straits Times.

The Malaysian government has yet to comment on the appeal.

Unless plans change otherwise, the film will be opened at theaters belonging to the Tanjong Golden Village and Golden Screen Cinemas nationwide next month. However, because of the restrictions, those wishing the view the film will have to purchase the tickets through churches rather than over the counter or at box offices.

"All the churches could book the tickets through my office," said Reverend Wong Kim Kong of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, the umbrella body of evangelical churches in Malaysia that lobbied the prime minister’s office four months ago for the film’s release.

Wong, who said he expects some 200,000 Malaysians would view the film, said he is willing to use the fellowship as the central office to tally up and pass church bookings onto the film’s distributor, Twentieth Century Fox.