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Gibson's movie unlikely box-office hit in Arab world

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Gone was the incessant ringing of mobile phones and the loud background chitchat of patrons typical of the Beirut moviegoing experience.

Instead, the audience sat in rapt silence, punctuated by moments of sobbing.

"It was very hard to watch because of all the blood, but as a Christian I am glad I saw it. I think this is how it really happened," said Nicole Shaker.

Mel Gibson's controversial movie "The Passion of the Christ," is breaking box office records across the Middle East. With the approach of Easter, Arab Christians identify primarily with the religious message. But it's the film's popularity among Muslims - even though it flouts Islamic taboos - that's turning it into a phenomenon.

Islam forbids the depiction of a prophet, and Koranic verses deny the crucifixion ever occurred. For those reasons, the film is banned in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain. It's also banned in Israel - but for other reasons.

Many Muslims see political parallels between the Jewish treatment of Jesus in the film and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians today.

As a result, "The Passion of the Christ," with its two hours of slow-motion bloodletting, is posting record sales in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. "It has beaten all records," says Johnny Masri, general manager of Prime Pictures, the movie's Middle East distributors. "It's more popular than Titanic and the James Bond films. We completely underestimated the huge success this movie would have."

Since being released on March 18, more than 214,000 people have watched "The Passion," he says - a substantial figure for this nation of less than 4 million inhabitants. Even Lebanese President Emile Lahoud is a fan, having expressed "strong admiration" for the movie's "pure objectivity." Censors in Lebanon closely scrutinize movies with religious themes, wary of causing offense or controversy in this multisectarian society. "The Life of Brian," Monty Python's irreverent 1979 spoof on the life of Jesus, remains banned in Lebanon to this day. Similarly, the 1998 animated movie "Prince of Egypt" was banned in Egypt for depicting Moses, a prophet.

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