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Capturing the Passion

A new film by Mel Gibson, to be released next year, depicts Jesus' last few hours. Jews and Catholics are raising concerns about its potential for stoking anti-Semitism.

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The last time Mel Gibson felt really passionate about directing a film he won the Oscar, and "Braveheart" became a global blockbuster. This time it's a more personal passion: a movie arising out of a rediscovery of his faith. Without studio backing - he's funding it himself - he hopes his film on the last hours of Jesus' life will have a much greater impact.

"My hope is that this movie has a ... message of tremendous courage and sacrifice [and] that it will affect people on a profound level and somehow change them," he recently told a Christian website.

While the movie is not quite in final shape, "The Passion" already has had an unforseen impact - stirring concerns about the potential of this latest version of the passion play to provoke anti-Semitism.

"He's an international icon and does movies which deliver messages that reach the world, so it's of great concern," says Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League.

ADL and an ad hoc group of Jewish and Catholic scholars have stirred debate over "The Passion" by reviewing a "leaked" early version of the screenplay. What they read prompted an 18-page report sent to Gibson and a public airing of their concern.

As the dramatic story of the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, the passion play has for centuries been powerful and popular entertainment - on stage and screen - in the Christian world. But historically, productions have reflected negative images of Jews and the long-time church teaching that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for Jesus' death. Violence against Jews as "Christ-killers" often flared in their wake.

While the Catholic church officially repudiated the concept of collective Jewish guilt in 1965, and most Protestant churches have followed suit, the shift has not yet fully permeated popular thought.

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