Mel Gibson's controversial film "The Passion of the Christ," accused by some Jewish organizations of encouraging anti-Semitism, is drawing a sizeable if unexceptional audience here while apparently touching an emotional nerve in the Syrian capital, Damascus.
"Coming out of the theater ... I saw a lot of people in tears," reported Fayez Wehbe, who saw the film - with Arabic sub-titles - in Damascus.
Certain sequences are in Aramaic, the language that was dominant in the Holy Land at the time of Christ and which can still be heard in certain towns in Syria, notably Maalula and Saadnaya near Damascus.
"Some members of the audience could not conceal their astonishment on hearing some expressions - such as Ya Illah (My God) - that are close to Arabic," said Wehbe.
Added another Syrian cinema-goer: "The fact that this film is being shown in the current Middle East context, which opposes Israel and the Arabs, explains part of its success."
Given its popularity in Damascus a fourth showing has been added to the three that had been initially offered, with people often buying tickets in the morning to be sure of getting a place.
The film has spawned reams of commentary because of its unflinchingly graphic portrayal of Christ's crucifixion. In some quarters it has been seen as promoting anti-Semitism by a negative depiction of Christ's fellow Jews, while that view has been strongly rejected in others.
Here in Beirut, the film has been warmly received. Lebanon's Maronite church has described it as "impressive" and found it not to be anti-Semitic.
"It is very sad, extremely impressive," commented Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the spiritual head of the Maronite church.
"We don't see any anti-Semitism there."
An official from one of Beirut's larger movie houses said "the public has come in strong numbers to see 'The Passion' but it has not been an exceptional rush."
North of the capital, in the heavily Christian Junieh region, the film is selling well, although it is off limits to youths under the age of 15.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat saw the film at his headquarters in Ramallah on the West Bank and pronounced it "moving."
"The Passion of the Christ" will also be shown in Cairo, where it is likewise forbidden to minors because of its violent scenes, starting March 31, and has been available to movie goers in the Gulf state of Qatar since last Sunday.
"We submitted 'The Passion of the Christ' to the censorship committee, which had no objection to its screening" in Qatar, said Abdul Rahman Mohsen, the director general of a private Qatari cinema company.
The committee usually censors scenes or images depicting prophets from the holy books.
The film is being shown three times a day in a cinema in Doha and will be screened for at least one month, Mohsen said.
Three other Gulf states are currently still reviewing the film, he said.
The movie will be shown to the public in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) beginning March 31 after having been given the green light by the ministry of culture and information, the UAE's Gulf News reported Sunday.
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