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May 15, 2006

By Patrick Goodenough International Editor
May 15, 2006

( - It's being hyped as the movie event of the 21st century, and Christians in Asia -- as elsewhere -- have found a variety of ways to respond to this week's release of the movie based on the assertion that Jesus was not divine, but married and conceived a child.

Some are calling for The Da Vinci Code to be banned or boycotted; others plan to exploit the heavily marketed film's arrival by challenging the controversial claims and presenting alternative viewpoints, in the hope of using the movie as a means to evangelize.

"I don't intend to call for any boycott," said Barry Hickey, the Catholic Archbishop of Perth, Australia, where the movie is due to open for general release on Thursday, ahead of Friday's opening in the U.S.

"I would just caution people who go to see it that they are not looking at fact, they are looking at fiction, and to treat it as they would treat any film about fictitious events."

For others, though, the concern is that because Dan Brown's huge-selling book - and the movie on which it's based - has intertwined historical fact and fabricated conspiracy theories, viewers will be left with the assumption that all the claims are factual.

Given that those claims contradict the central tenets of the Christian faith, they say, the Da Vinci Code phenomenon cannot be ignored or left unchallenged, particularly because of a high level of ignorance of basic Christian history.

The plot asserts that Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene was hidden by the Catholic Church through the centuries, and that the emperor Constantine commissioned a sanitized version of the New Testament that omitted those references and "upgraded" Jesus' status from that of mortal prophet to divine Son of God.

"The danger lies in the blending of fiction and purported facts," the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines warns in a guide it has published on the book.

"Some take the novel for what it truly is - a work of fiction and nothing more," said organization's president, Archbishop Angel Lagdameo, in a pastoral letter.

"But no matter how a reader views the novel, it cannot be denied that fiction shapes the imagination, stirs emotions and forms mental associations. Brown has created the impression that his fiction is historical fact."

The Philippines is Asia's most outspokenly Catholic country, and President Gloria Arroyo's executive secretary Eduardo Ermita caused a storm when he said that if he had his way, the "blasphemous" movie would not be shown in Philippine theaters.

Although Ermita said the government would do nothing to stop the film from being screened, he was roundly attacked by opposition lawmakers who accused him of in appropriate meddling in religious matters.

Several senators surveyed by the Manila Times agreed that the movie should be shown, as any ban would violate free speech.

The Filipino bishops are not calling for a ban or boycott. Instead they urged Catholics "to serenely affirm the fundamental truths of our faith, in particular ... Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human."

They also called on Christians to deepen their knowledge of the Bible and the history of the church.

In South Korea, by contrast, the Christian Council of Korea worried that the movie and book could "seriously damage" the church, and called on Christian organizations to support a boycott.

The council also wrote to Sony Pictures, urging it to excise problematic parts of the movie and to include a disclaimer relating to the most controversial aspects.

About 12 million of South Korea's 48 million people are Christians.

In India, a predominantly Hindu country with a Christian minority accounting for 2.5 percent of the population, All-India Christian Council (AICC) general secretary Abraham Mathai said "we will leave no stone unturned in trying to ban the film."

Playing it safe, some cinema companies reportedly decided to await final approval from the country's censor board this week before promoting the movie and taking bookings.

The AICC also used the opportunity to accuse the national and state governments of pandering to other faiths at Christians' expense.

" Why do governments have two-faced, double-standard policy on issues of cultural and religious sensitivity?" asked John Dayal, chairman of a Catholic organization affiliated to the AICC.

"Why is it okay to give licences to sell the Gita [a key Hindu text] at railway stations but to beat up and arrest Christian workers distributing the New Testament tracts?"

Dayal also said Christians were confident that what he called the latest example of the "calumny" that had targeted God for 2,000 years would "be consigned to the dust heap of history."

'Great tool'

In Australia, Anglican churches are hoping to exploit The Da Vinci Code.

The Anglican diocese in Sydney has bought advertising slots in 250 cinemas and will screen 20-second ads over the next month, inviting viewers to check out a dedicated website, one of many to have mushroomed around the world debunking the movie's controversial claims.

The diocese said in a statement that the film was a "great tool Christians can use to put God back on the agenda and spark Gospel conversations."

"The Da Vinci Code is an aggressive attack on Biblical beliefs ... However, since it challenges people's views of the church, Jesus and much more, it will create opportunities for Christians to share what they believe and why."

Some Anglican parishes are going further, booking out whole cinemas to host their own showings of the movie -- much as many churches did when The Passion of the Christ was released.

Some Da Vinci screenings will include a critique of the movie, while at others, literature will be handed out pointing viewers to a debunking website and inviting them to seminars.

The book has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide since its U.S. release in March 2003.

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Posted: May 15, 2006 8:04pm


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