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Gary Younge
Bloodthirsty or a classic? Gibson's film of Christ's last days alarms Jewish groups

Yet the film, co-directed by Gibson, who has spent $25m (£15.6m) of his own money on the project, has already attracted lavish praise from evangelicals and stern criticism from Jewish and Catholic scholars, with one academic warning that it could provoke within the US "one of the great crisis in Christian-Jewish relations".

The star has claimed the "Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic. I hope the film has the power to evangelise". But a panel of three Jewish and six Catholic scholars, who have studied a draft script, say the film is anti-semitic and theologically inaccurate, portraying Jews as bloodthirsty and vengeful and reviving the worst traditions of the passion plays which contributed to deadly attacks against Jews over the centuries.

"When we read the screenplay our sense was this wasn't really something you could fix. All the way through, the Jews are portrayed as bloodthirsty," said Sister Mary C Boys, a professor at New York's Union Theological Seminary. "We're really concerned that this could be one of the great crises in Christian-Jewish relations."

The panel was convened by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops with the help of the Jewish advocacy group, the Anti-Defamation League. Gibson responded by accusing the scholars of illegally obtaining stolen property - the draft script - and extortion while threatening court orders and lawsuits.

He is showing a rough cut of the film to selected evangelicals, religious leaders, pundits and politicians, including David Kuo, of the White House's faith-based initiatives. They signed confidentiality agreements before the screening.

The controversy has also put Gibson's own religious beliefs under the spotlight. He funds a "traditionalist Catholic church" in Los Angeles, a spin-off from mainstream Catholicism that rejects the second Vatican council which, among other things, cleared Jews of being collectively responsible for Christ's murder.

But Gibson is adamant that the film is not anti-Jewish. "Anti-semitism is not only contrary to my personal beliefs, it is also contrary to the core message of my movie," he said. "The Passion is a film meant to inspire not offend."

Earlier this year the star of the Lethal Weapon series and the Mad Max films, was asked by Fox News talk show host, Bill O'Reilly, if he thought the film would upset any Jewish people. "It may," he conceded. "It's not meant to. I think it's meant to just tell the truth ... Anybody who transgresses has to look at their own part or look at their own culpability."

Deal Hudson, publisher of the conservative Catholic magazine, Crisis, told the New York Times that he thought the film was "going to be a classic. It's going to be the go-to film for Christians of all denominations who want to see the best movie made about the Passion of Christ".

Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, described it as "a beautiful, wonderful account of the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus Christ. It is consistent with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John".

But one problem, pointed out by Paula Fredriksen, a professor of scripture at Boston University and one of the panel that criticised the script, is that the gospels themselves are not consistent. "In Mark, Jesus's last meal is a Passover seder [ceremonial meal]; in John, Jesus is dead before the seder begins. The release of Barabbas is a 'Roman custom' in Mark, a 'Jewish custom' in John. Between the four evangelists, Jesus speaks three different last lines from the cross."

The Passion's detractors have asked to see the film so they can judge for themselves. "If the movie is a statement of love, as he says it is, why not show it to you or me?" Abraham Foxman, National director, of the Anti-Defamation League, told the New York Times. Gibson's company, Icon productions, has declined. "There is no way on God's green earth," said Paul Lauer, Gibson's publicist, "that any of those people will be invited to a screening. They have shown themselves to be dishonourable."

The escalating row has exposed the fragility of the coalition of Jews and rightwing Christians which has formed over the Bush administration's unwavering support for Israel. "There is a great deal of pressure on Israel right now," said Mr Haggard. "For Jewish leaders to risk alienating two billion Christians over a movie seems short-sighted."

Mr Gibson's critics say the ramifications go way beyond the film. "This is a story for which millions paid with their lives," says Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre, told New York Newsday. "They were burned at the stake, killed in pogroms ... and it was those ideas that served as the foundations of the Holocaust. We have a right to be concerned."

Hollywood idol, Catholic faith

· Born Mel Columcille Gerard Gibson in 1956 in Peekskill, New York. The sixth of 11 children, his middle names honour two saints. Aged 12, the family left for Australia to avoid the Vietnam draft

· Failed to graduate from Australian Institute of Dramatic Art, but landed lead in the surprise hit Mad Max (1979)

· Now said to earn £20m a film, a sum matched only by Tom Cruise. Owns two adjoining homes in Malibu, California, a £3m home in Connecticut, and an 800-acre farm in Australia

· He and wife Robyn, have seven children - Hannah, Edward, Christian, William, Louis, Milo and Tommy - aged from four to 22. Hannah is preparing to become a nun

· A practising Catholic - and building a £2m church in Malibu - he is pro capital punishment, anti-abortion, anti-feminism, and anti-gay

· Career high - in 1996, he won an Oscar for best director (Braveheart). The film also won the Oscar for best picture

· Career low - drinking binges in the 80s nearly cost his career, and driving licence. His wife's threat to leave him unless he stopped made him clean up his act at Alcoholics Anonymous in 1991.

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