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Last Updated: Monday, 21 July, 2003, 12:39 GMT 13:39 UK
The most watched film in history
By Giles Wilson
BBC News Online Magazine

Forget Titanic. Forget Star Wars and Gone With the Wind. They are small fry compared to the Jesus Film, which has been watched by more than two billion people. And now the people behind it have their eyes on a new goal... Iraq.

There's no swearing. There are no sex scenes. There's some violence, but that is integral to the plot. And ultimately there's a happy ending.

That's where similarities to Hollywood end, though. There's no glamour, no stars, and certainly no Cecil B DeMille.

At first sight, Jesus, or the Jesus Film as it has come to be known, is an unlikely candidate for the title of most watched - and most translated - film. Shot on location in the Holy Land, and with a white British Jesus, it is instead a straight-faced retelling of Luke's gospel. It was made in 1979, by coincidence the same year as Monty Python's Life of Brian.

WHO'S THAT MAN?
Jesus played by Brian Deacon, a Shakespearian actor
Filmed in Israel, mostly with Yemenite Jews in the cast
But how, while it is virtually unknown in the UK and many other Western countries, did it ever receive such an enormous worldwide audience? And how did it get translated into more than 760 languages and dialects, among them Uyghur, Jorai, Karakalpak, Hakka, Mongo-Nkudu and Nosu Yi?

The reason is simply the work of an American evangelical organisation, Campus Crusade. Funded by its supporters and well-wishers, it sends teams around the world, even where they are not particularly welcome. There they record new translations of the film, organise screenings to inquisitive crowds in improvised cinemas, and distribute copies to whoever they can.

Rather than concentrate on places like the UK, its focus is on the far corners of the world, although it has of late been sending unsolicited VHS copies to US households.

Among the crusade's goals are to make a translation for every language. With some 7,000 languages on the planet it has some way to go yet.

Website image
The crusade's controversial plea
But another of its goals almost guarantees that a degree of controversy will surround its work. Visit the organisation's website and a banner advertisement will invite you to "Send videocassettes of 'JESUS' to Iraq". And to help it speak specifically to Muslims, the organisation has a powerful new tool.

Rather than address the differences between Christianity and Islam, the project has made a new, 15-minute film, which highlights their similarities, particularly the common ground of the creation story. The new film's British director, Andi Hunt, says: "The purpose of it was always to create context for the story of Jesus... Jesus is in the Koran, he's a big part of the Islamic faith, so a lot of care was taken in the introduction to keep that viewer in mind."

Even though sensitivities were heightened by the shadow of war in Iraq, the new film received its premiere in a village in a politically volatile - but staunchly Islamic - area of northern Egypt. The project members took a screen, a 16mm projector, and some leaflets.

Documentary-maker Deep Sehgal filmed the screening as part of a six-month venture to record the work of the project. His film, Selling Jesus, is to be broadcast in the UK on BBC Four next week.

Paul Eshleman
"Follower of Jesus" Paul Eshleman
"The events we witnessed were often bewildering," he says. "But what struck us most was the utter normality of those who were willing to risk their lives for Christ.

"These are not Stepford Christians with glazed expressions and dogmatic platitudes. These are dedicated, caring and liberal people who believe that they have stumbled upon the one great Truth, and will die for their right to share it."

From palatial premises in Florida, Paul Eshleman, the head of the crusade, looks the part of the archetypal American evangelist. And yet his words don't quite fit the part, preferring for instance to be called a "follower of Jesus" rather than a Christian. "The word Christian is so loaded with things that have been done in the name of Christ," he says.

Conviction is one thing - diplomacy is however another. Even the fact that the organisation calls itself a crusade pinpoints the delicacy of the issues at stake, particularly after President Bush used the term - and quickly dropped it - after 11 September.
AID WORKERS
In 2001, US aid workers Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer were arrested by the Taleban
They had shown the film to an Afghan family (but weren't working for the project)
US Marines rescued them
George Bush welcomed them home: "It's been an uplifting experience to talk to these courageous souls"

Eshleman offers no apology for spreading the gospel he believes.

"People ask 'Why do you go to those far away places?' It's because those people haven't had a chance. That's all we want to do - to give them a chance to hear the message of Christ in an understandable language near where they live."

It is people like John Meyer, one of the team which goes into the field to make new translations of the film, who have put that vision into practice - and put the film into the record books. "I'm willing to lay down my life for Jesus, should it come to that," he told Sehgal. "So if there's a recording in a war-torn country, I'm more than willing to go. Or anywhere else, to be honest."


Selling Jesus was originally broadcast in the UK on BBC Four on 22 July, 2004. It is repeated on BBC Four on Thursday, 9 September , 2004 at 22:30 BST.

These comments on the story were received after the original broadcast.

Just because you support Jesus doesn't mean everyone else has to. I wouldn't impose it on the people in Iraq. There will be a backlash. You shouldn't preach your religion - it only causes problems. I'm a Hindu and I certainly wouldn't go around telling people who they should follow - especially in another country, it's disrespectful.
Sanjeev, England

The film may help bring hope to the people of Iraq regardless of their religious affiliation.
Gerald Nyerere, Tanzania

Thank you for featuring this wonderful project - from the tiny, once Christian villages now without a functioning church, to little Muslim communities bounded by the desert, this project is bringing the Gospel to people who would never hear otherwise.
Mike Farley, UK

Yet another attempt by the Christian church to indoctrinate people over to them and steal their money under the pretence that they are offering salvation.
Kobe, Wales

Trying to sublimate the dominant religion in another country is, if nothing else, an insult to the sensibilities and belief systems of its indigenous people. It's exactly what starts wars in the first place.
Eric, US

It is one of the most powerful films ever made, powerful due to its simplicity and the realistic way in which it is telling about the life of Jesus.
Alex, UK

I would have thought that ordinary Iraqi people had enough to worry about without being outcast from an Islamic or Muslim community. Can't the Americans help them rebuild their country without imposing their beliefs on them as well? It is about winning hearts and minds, not brain washing a downtrodden country into Christianity.
James Bainbridge, Britain

Fair play, of course Christians want to share and spread their faith. But why is the Jesus in the video a white European? Doesn't that somewhat undermine the realism, and even hint at some underlying prejudices?
Puzzled, UK

I think that in order to make a judgement on the movie, people should actually watch it first. If they did they would realize that it is the story of the life of Jesus Christ. It is not a "turn or burn" sermon that thumps the Bible proclaiming that all who don't believe are going to hell. Would you say that same thing if it was a movie on the life of Mother Theresa?
CS, Australia

These people are so arrogant! It really annoys me when anyone thinks their religion is better than someone else's. Why don't these Christians convert to another religion first, just to see how insulting it is, before they go around giving the "natives" the "benefit" of their religion?
P Fatania, England

Most of those commenting here are missing the point - it appears that the introduction of this film is not about "imposing" a religion on anyone, it is not about "sublimation" or indoctrination, it is simply allowing access to the Christian gospel and giving those who may not have heard the "good news" an opportunity to do so. No one is forcing anyone here to do anything. People watch the film out of curiosity or by choice and therein lies the point. Christianity is about free will - not coercion. Sharing faith with others who have different views is not "disrespectful" - it is one of the foundations on which human discourse is based.
Robert, UK

Most of these evangelical groups funded by rich US sponsors and the influential Christian right have an agenda of converting Iraq to Christianity by any means. They believe their intentions are noble and compassionate. Having said that, I am baffled by their lack of compassion on the humanitarian side. Do they care about the deteriorating law-and-order situation, soaring unemployment, lack of power and water etc. in Iraq?
Nachiketa, US

According to the excellent Dan Cruickshank programme, Iraq has one of the oldest monasteries in the world. Iraq has been practising Christianity continuously since before the 4th Century. That is 1200 years before it crossed the Atlantic. Don't you think in intervening 1600 years they have had time to work out, individually, which vendor they prefer to purchase their religion from? I thought Christianity was about tolerance!
Andy Botten, UK




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