Jesus film is big at the box office, and a big source of tension

Besides pulling in at least $125.2 million since its Wednesday, Feb. 25, opening, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” has touched off a few tense moments.

When a few Jews in New York decided last week to dress up in concentration camp uniforms to protest the screening of the movie the day it opened, they were hoping to make a point.

They also upset a lot of Jews.

The group, activists from Amcha, The Coalition for Jewish Concerns — argued that Gibson’s controversial film, which many say blames the Jews for Jesus’ death, could inspire the type of anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust.

But many Jews, including Holocaust survivors, found that message — and the way the protesters sought to convey it — objectionable.

Aryeh Leifert, 25, an Orthodox rabbinical student, said he was incensed when he saw the yarmulke-clad protesters outside a theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side wearing the striped suits and yellow stars of concentration camp inmates.

“It was totally out of place and an embarrassment,” Leifert said. “I think their priorities were slightly out of whack. You have to be very careful when you use Holocaust imagery. Jews don’t automatically get a free pass.”

Also on Feb. 25, the pastor of a church in Denver raised a storm of criticism when he used the sign in front of his church for the message: “Jews Killed The Lord Jesus.”

Church members later changed the message to “God so loved the world that he gave — and He’s still giving.”

But before the sign was altered, Pastor Maurice Gordon of Lovingway United Pentecostal Church defended his sign.

“What I did, right or wrong, was to give a citation from the Apostle Paul.” Gordon said.

A United Pentecostal Church International official disavowed Gordon’s sign and said it did not reflect the group’s position.

Gordon later put up a sign that read, “I am deeply sorry for offending the Jewish people, whom I love.” The pastor, who has long put up signs condemning homosexuality and abortion, also caused controversy when he said Tuesday, March 2, that Jews need to forgive Germans for the Holocaust.

The church is located on Colorado Boulevard, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares.

Ami Ship of Denver drove by the church after hearing about the sign in a class at the Denver Campus for Jewish Education. She said she stopped at the church, knocked on the doors and called on her cell phone.

“No one would answer the door or the phone,” said Ship, who is Jewish. “I just wanted to talk to them and see if they would take the sign down.”

She decided not to wait for a response. Ship bought a ladder and a tarp at a store across the street, intending to cover the sign. When that didn’t work, she removed the word “Jews” from the message board instead and left the letters at the church.

“I’m raising four Jewish little girls and I would like the community to be a safe place for all religions,” Ship said.

Gibson’s film also provoked sharp responses in other countries. In Argentina, a legislator in the city of Rosario proposed that the film on the crucifixion of Jesus not be taxed to keep prices down and to increase the film’s audience.

Distribution companies so far have refused to bring the film to France. Questions about the film’s economic viability and its violence are being given for the lack of a French distributor, but articles in the French media have suggested that fears of Jewish pressure and the film’s effects on anti-Semitism might also play a role.

In Britain, the Jewish central organization said, “It would have been better if this film had never been made.”

At a screening of the movie, a coincidence caused Christian viewers to think about theological implications.

The number 666, which many Christians recognize as the “mark of the beast,” appeared on movie tickets for the film at a Georgia theater, drawing complaints from some moviegoers.

The machine that prints tickets assigned the number 666 as a prefix on all the tickets for the film, said Gary Smith, owner of the Movies at Berry Square in northwest Georgia. The 666 begins a series of numbers that are listed below the name of the movie, the date, time and price.

In the next week, ABC will broadcast “Judas,” a made-for-TV movie. The two-hour drama, to be shown at 9 p.m. on Monday, Mar. 8, will focus on the figure who, according to the Christian bible, betrayed Jesus.

The show portrays a Judas convinced that Jesus will lead the Jews to victory over the Romans. But Judas only grows disillusioned, and he ultimately reveals Jesus’ identity to the High Priest Caiaphas and the Roman leader Pontius Pilate. Tom Fontana, who created the police series “Homicide, Life on the Streets,” and “Oz,” co-produced the movie and co-wrote the screenplay.