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LOS ANGELES (LifeSiteNews) — Nineteen years after portraying St. John in Mel Gibson’s 2004 hit box office film The Passion of the Christ, Bulgarian-born actor Christo Jivkov passed away April 1 of lung cancer at 48 years old.

Gibson responded to the news in a public statement, calling Jivkov his “dear friend.”

“My dear friend Christo has lost his heroic battle with cancer. Right to the last moment he was filled with hope and his spirit was strong,” said Gibson, who produced, directed, and co-wrote The Passion and reportedly stayed in touch with Jivkov in the years following the release of the film. “I’ll miss him but I know his suffering is over and he has eternal bliss. God keep him.”

Entertainment industry outlet Deadline reported that Jivkov had launched his career in Italian cinema and TV in 2001 after graduating with a degree in film directing from the Bulgarian Film & Theater Academy. 

In 2004, he accepted the role of St. John in The Passion of the Christ, performing opposite Jim Caviezel as Jesus. 

In 2009 he co-founded an independent production company called Red Carpet Films. Following news of his passing, the company said in a statement on Facebook that its members were “truly devastated by this untimed loss” of their “beloved friend and dear colleague.” 

“The Passion of the Christ star Christo Jivkov died April 1st in Los Angeles at age 48 after a battle with lung cancer,” reacted Sister Mary Joseph, a Sister Servant of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on Twitter. “He played John the Apostle in Mel Gibson’s religious epic. May he rest in peace.”

Deadline reported that Jivkov had been “expected to be involved in the long-rumored sequel” to the Passion “if/when it came to fruition.”

Gibson has been working for years on making a sequel to The Passion, but 19 years after the release of the first film the sequel has not yet progressed beyond the pre-production phase.

According to IMDB, the movie will depict “the events that occurred three days between the crucifixion and resurrection when Jesus Christ descended to Abraham’s Bosom to preach and resurrect Old Testament saints.”

Caviezel, who has been tapped to reprise his role as Jesus in the sequel, said during a 2020 interview with Fox News contributor Raymond Arroyo that Gibson was then working on the fifth draft of the film, which he predicted would “be a masterpiece.”

“It’s going to be the biggest film in world history,” he said at the time.