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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 February, 2004, 18:03 GMT
Crowds and protests greet Passion
Protestors outside The Passion screening in New York City
Some protestors wore concentration camp uniforms outside cinemas
The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's controversial film about Jesus, took about $20m (11m) at US box offices in its opening day, according to a report.

Icon production company, which made the film, told Variety controversy over the movie had "piqued interest" in it.

Depicting Jesus' crucifixion, the film has come in for strong criticism from some Jewish groups who say it blames Jews for Jesus' death.

British Jewish leaders also criticised the film after attending a screening.

"It would have been better if this film had never been made," said Neville Nagler, director general of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

"The glorification of violence and bloodshed and the reinforcement of medieval stereotyping of the Jewish people are extremely dangerous," he added.

The Passion of The Christ
The Passion of The Christ was released on Ash Wednesday

Lord Janner, vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, said: "I hated it. I think it extraordinary that anyone would voluntarily go to see this film.

"The Jews come out of it as a pretty nasty lot and I believe it could cause very great harm in relations with the Jewish community."

Several Catholic priests also attended the screening in London and took a different stance.

"I do not believe it is anti-Semitic - Jesus himself was Jewish," said Father Mark Hackeson, from Poringland, near Norwich.

"Of course it is violent, but the crucifixion was a very violent event. The important thing is that the message behind the violence is one of love and forgiveness, not of condemnation," he said.

The Passion's first day performance ranks it as one of the most successful openings outside the summer and Christmas seasons, Variety said.

With all the publicity, Mel Gibson is laughing all the way to the bank
Rabbi Bernhard H Rosenberg

"It's obviously happening - big time," Icon chairman Bruce Davey told the magazine.

The overall one-day opening record of $39.4m is held by Spider-Man.

The movie, directed and co-written by Gibson, was released in more than 3,000 cinemas in the US on Ash Wednesday.

A woman in her 50s, Peggy Law Scott, died during the crucifixion scene in a cinema in Wichita, Kansas.

Churches across the country booked screens for their congregations and helped sell tickets.

Among the protesters was Rabbi Abi Weiss of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, who said the film had "absolutely no positive theological message".

"Its message is only that Jews were responsible for the murder of Jesus. It talks about love, but very, very minimally," he said.

Heated

Rabbi Bernhard H Rosenberg, chief rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Edison, New Jersey, said Mel Gibson would be "laughing all the way to the bank".

"Theatres are going to be packed, and his pockets will be lined," he said.

"Emotionally, if anyone is on the border of hating Jews, this will push you over."

The early cinemagoers included 90-year-old Edna Oatman of Pleasantville, New Jersey, dressed in her Sunday best for her first cinema visit since ET in 1982.

"If you read the Bible story, you know that Jesus died for the whole world, not just Christians," she said. "Maybe this will get people going to church."

Gibson has denied anti-Semitism and says the film highlights Christ's "huge" sacrifice.

The Passion is released in the UK on 26 March.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Jeremy Cooke
"It is bloody, violent, and deeply controversial"



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