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Passions run high as movie's opening nears

The movie is bloody, gruesome and powerful. Those who have seen it agree on that much.

But depending on who is talking, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ can also be either an incredible tribute to the death of Christ and the birth of Christianity or a slap to every Jew.

Local faith leaders who have viewed a version of the controversial movie see it as another reason that people need to talk, particularly as Lent and Passover draw near. That's what they plan to do.

Three weeks before the movie's nationwide opening, Catholic and Jewish leaders in the Tampa Bay area have scheduled a town hall meeting Wednesday night at Temple Beth-El to discuss the genre of Passion plays.

James M. Barrens, a St. Petersburg resident who is helping to organize the talk, saw an unfinished version of the movie in Orlando with a group of evangelical ministers.

"There were clearly people who were moved and some who were weeping," said Barrens, who found elements of the movie problematic.

"Speaking personally, I thought it was bloody, disappointing and had elements of anti-Semitism in it," Barrens said.

"That being said, we have been receiving information over the last couple of days that the movie is being changed. I really hope that the final product will be changed and improved significantly."

Barrens, a Catholic whose wife is Jewish, attended the screening along with James Rudin, a rabbi who is an authority on Passion plays. Rudin, who has seen two versions of the movie in recent months, will speak at Wednesday's town hall gathering.

"My intention is to use the soon-to-be-released film as a teachable moment," said Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee.

His great fear is that the movie could stir up "latent anti-Jewish caricatures and stereotypes that are very deep in a person's memory bank."

Some local pastors see little reason for worry.

"I talked to two ministers who were there and they raved about it," said the Rev. Deon Lett of Suncoast Cathedral, an Assemblies of God congregation in St. Petersburg.

Still, organizers of Wednesday's meeting see the need to talk.

"I think that it is very important that we place everything in its larger context. There are problematic elements that come out at this time of year" as Lent and Passover approach, said Barrens, executive director of the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at Saint Leo University, which is organizing the gathering with the National Conference for Community and Justice.

He noted that until a few decades ago, Jewish culpability for the crucifixion of Jesus was a prevalent attitude among many Christians.

"This has been officially repudiated by all major denominations, officially beginning in 1965 with Vatican II, but those attitudes are still with us," Barrens said. "We hope we can sensitize Christians to the great advances made in church teachings."

The Passion of the Christ will open Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the sacred Christian season of Lent, which commemorates the last days of Jesus and ends with his resurrection at Easter. Passover, a foremost Jewish festival, also falls during this period.

Icon Productions, Gibson's film company, did not return telephone calls or e-mails.

Rudin saw a version of the movie on Aug. 8 in Houston with about 100 Jewish and Christian leaders, and another on Jan. 21 at an Orlando conference for evangelical pastors. Rudin was present when Mel Gibson spoke about his movie at the Texas gathering.

"He said it's an act of faith. He felt compelled to make this and said he was in a bad place in his life and Jesus brought him out of it," Rudin said.

Gibson, who has been described as belonging to a traditionalist group that broke with the Roman Catholic Church over the reforms of Vatican II, also responded to concerns that the movie might be anti-Semitic, Rudin said.

"He said he hopes that his film would not foment any anti-Semitism and he would regret it if it did," the rabbi said.

The film, which is in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew with English subtitles, was a hit with the ministers in Orlando.

"There's no way on God's good Earth that any true Christian would have any ill feeling toward a Jewish person over this movie," said the Rev. Carl Stephens, who had his photograph taken with Gibson. Stephens is pastor of Faith Assembly in Orlando, where Sunday attendance is about 3,000.

"Christ was Jewish and true believers look up to the Jewish people and honor Jewish people. This movie is what happened."

He added: "As a pastor, I was looking for the movie script to be in line with Scripture, which I found it to be wonderfully so."

Not exactly, says Father Len Piotrowski of St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church in Tampa, who will speak at Wednesday's town hall meeting.

The movie is "theologically problematic," he said.

"Even though I have not seen the movie, I find it problematic because it is just about (Jesus') passion and death. Jesus cannot really be understood only by his death. That's only one part of the story of Jesus."

Piotrowski said members of his congregation and those of Rabbi Joel Wasser of nearby Congregation Kol Ami plan to see the movie together and discuss it afterward.

The controversy surrounding the Lenten season, the Passion plays that arose from it during the Middle Ages and Gibson's Passion is rooted in Matthew, Chapter 27, verse 25. It comes after the Bible says that Pontius Pilate washed his hands before the crowd calling for Jesus' crucifixion. Pilate told the crowd that he is not responsible for Jesus' death. In response, writes Matthew, the crowd said, "May his blood be on us and on our children."

"That verse is one of the most problematic verses," Piotrowski said.

"That verse, unless it is correctly interpreted, is misunderstood and the cause of prejudice and hatred and blame. ... The Jewish people at the time had no authority to put anyone to death. Rome and Roman leaders had the authority to execute and they regularly executed criminals," Piotrowski said.

"It's my hope that the movie will not fuel prejudice and anti-Semitism and it's my hope that the movie will not blame all Jewish people who live and ever will live for the death of Jesus and thereby cause misguided people to say that if Jews killed Jesus, I can kill them," the priest said. "That's the deicide charge, calling the Jews Christ killers."

The version of Gibson's movie that Rudin saw in Texas did not contain the verse from Matthew. The one in Orlando did, he said.

That was "very disappointing," said Rudin, who has had an advisory role on the famous Oberammergau Passion play in Germany. The Oberammergau production, he said, now omits the verse.