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LEBANON: Iranian director's Jesus film pulled

August 16, 2010 | 10:15 am

The Iranian director of a controversial show depicting the story of Jesus has criticized Lebanese Christian groups who protested the airing of the serial, which was pulled from the air by two local Muslim-owned stations last week.

"The film was immediately purchased ... by several Latin American countries, which are among major Christian Catholic countries," Nader Talebzadeh reportedly told Iranian TV Channel 2 on Sunday. "Therefore, [Lebanese Christian groups'] protest seems to be political to some extent."

Talebzadeh went on to say that his original 2007 film, which was bought and heavily promoted by the local channels as a religious serial for the holy month of Ramadan, received an award from the Vatican for promoting interfaith dialogue.

But rather than foster dialogue, "The Messiah" sparked angry words from Christians in Lebanon who objected to the film's version of Jesus' story, which is based on a gospel that has been rejected by much of the Christian community but is very close to the Koran's version of events.

The Maronite Church in Lebanon and much of the Christian community objected the show’s portrayal of Christ as a “servant of God” instead of the son of God, as well as failing to acknowledge the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, a central tenet of Christianity. Although the Koran maintains that Jesus was a prophet and a teacher, it does not say that he was the son of God and tells the story of the crucifixion with Judas taking Jesus’ place on the cross.

Both Al Manar, the station owned by the militant group Hezbollah, and NBN, which is affiliated with Nabih Berri, parliamentary speaker and leader of the Amal movement, voluntarily pulled the show after just two episodes, although it is still available on pan-Arab satellite channels.

The Islamization of the story of Jesus is the “biggest insult to the Lord Jesus Christ, and his church,” said  Bishop Beshara Raii, pastor of the Maronite Church in Byblos.

The show appears to have struck a deep chord with many Lebanese Christians, who already feel marginalized and outnumbered despite controlling important sections of the government and the private sector.

The debate over the series also touches on the issue of free speech in Lebanon, which is considered freer than most countries in the region but which often censors cultural production deemed too lewd, politically charged or offensive to religion.

On Saturday, the Lebanese leftist daily newspaper Al Akhbar ran an article by Bassim Hakim titled "The Messiah: A Victim of 'Coexistance" in which he referred to the campaign against the show as an "inquisition."

"The country of freedom fails the test of freedom, and it is the same country that cannot protect its journalists," he wrote.

It was unclear whether Hakim was referring to the string of bombings targeting high-profile journalists over the last few years or the recent alleged harassment of one of Al Akhbar's journalists by authorities. 

-- Patrick Gallagher and Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Lebanese Christians protest the serial "The Messiah" Credit: Hussein Mella / Associated Press