Mideast Christians push ‘Da Vinci’ ban

Religious groups limit pic release

While “The Da Vinci Code” reveals its secrets to auds at Cannes and around the world, many in the Mideast look set to remain in the dark.

The film has fallen afoul of censors across the region over its religious storyline. But this time, the censorship comes not from Muslim clerics or conservative governments, but from Christian groups.

Pic’s Mideast distributor, Circuit-Empire, told Variety the film will not be released in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt.

In Lebanon, for example, Christians (Maronite Catholic and Orthodox) make up 35%-40% of the country. The success of their campaign is sign of them flexing their muscle and authorities’ desire not to offend the Christian population.

Indeed, Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel was banned in all its translations weeks after its release in Lebanon in 2004. The president of Lebanon’s Catholic Centre of Information, Father Abdu Abu Kassem, said the book, which alleges Jesus fathered a child with Mary Magdalene, “harmed Christian beliefs.” In Jordan, the Council of Churches recently called for the film to be axed because “the book was full of fabricated lies about Jesus,” according to secretary general Hanna Noor.

Circuit’s decision not to even seek censor approval in Egypt comes after a series of clashes in recent months between Coptic Christians and Muslims in the country.

Despite the “Da Vinci” bans, local interest in the film remains high.

“People definitely know about it and want to see it,” said Hiyam Itani, Circuit’s publicity manager. The bans are likely to apply to all formats, with an official DVD release of the film unlikely, although pirate copies are expected to be easily available once the film screens elsewhere.

But some countries are not joining the ban brigade. “Da Vinci” has been approved by censors in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — who only passed it after repeat viewings. It opens there May 31. Decisions in Bahrain, Oman and Qatar are pending.

Local attitudes towards nudity and violence differ across the region. When “Munich” passed in Egypt and the UAE it was the nudity, not the political content, that was cut by authorities, whereas in Lebanon, generally the most tolerant Arab society when it comes to sex and violence, “Syriana” was blocked because of its political references to Hizbollah.

Where there is general consensus, though, is with religion. Egypt banned “Matrix Reloaded” and “Bruce Almighty” because censors thought the filmmakers were playing too hard and fast with the notion of God and creation. When “The Passion of the Christ” came out, however, pic was deemed a devotional work from a committed Christian, so exceptions were made. The UAE authorities even changed the law to allow the representation of a holy prophet on the big screen.

Not that Christians are the only ones with power to dissent.

The seemingly innocuous “Naked Gun” is on the Lebanese TV black list because of brief scene mocking Ayatollah Khomeini.

When one local satcaster broadcast the film a few years ago, they forgot to cut the offending scene. The result was a midnight visit from some security chiefs at the home of the head of the station angrily asking for an explanation and apology, as well as threats to close the station down.

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