JOHOR BARU, July 27, 2004 ( – The Muslim government of Malaysia has decided to restrict viewing of Mel Gibson’s blockbuster, The Passion of the Christ, to Christian audiences. The Film Censorship Board of Malaysia had originally intended to ban the film outright but after intervention of the Prime Minister has allowed it to play in ‘designated’ cinemas without advertising. Malaysia’s population is made up of no more that 9% Christians while the great majority is Sunni Muslim. The official state religion of Malaysia is Islam.  Islam prohibits the depiction of humans or animals and considers Jesus to be a prophet, therefore depicting him on screen is technically prohibited.  Msgr. Paul Tan Chee Ing, the Catholic bishop of Melaka-Johor said that he was “perplexed and disappointed” by the decision. He said, “If the Malaysian government is honest and serious about promoting racial and religious tolerance amongst its citizenry, it must adopt an open approach to the beliefs, values and cultures of all people of goodwill.”

The Malaysian Constitution officially gives citizens the right to freely profess, practice, and propagate their religion. However, this right is restricted in practice. The construction of non-Muslim places of worship must be approved by the government while Muslim places of worship face no such restriction. The sale and distribution of Malay language Bibles and other Christian materials are strongly discouraged. Visas for foreign clergy of non-Muslim religions are severely restricted. Apostates (those who convert from Islam to another religion) may be fined or imprisoned for a year of “rehabilitation.”

Bishop Tan said that he had hoped the film, which had been a huge success in Arab countries, could act as a bridge between the two religious groups. The bishop said, “we should underline our similarities and the film The Passion of the Christ could be a wonderful jumping-off point for inter-religious dialogue to enhance mutual understanding and acceptance of each other.”  AsiaNews coverage:   ph