- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Catholic Church is mobilizing a worldwide response to the movie “The Da Vinci Code,” which had its red-carpet premiere last night at the Cannes Film Festival in France and will be released worldwide tomorrow.

While the lay Catholic organization Opus Dei — excoriated in the film as murderous and secretive — mounted a public relations campaign in Rome, Christians in India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand have protested the film or expressed concern.

Complaints prompted India’s government to put a temporary hold on the release of the movie — scheduled for tomorrow — although it has been cleared by the national censor board. A final decision on the movie’s release could come early tomorrow. Joseph Dias, head of the country’s Catholic Secular Forum, is on a hunger strike in downtown Bombay.

Vatican officials and even lay Catholic writers have hit the international lecture circuit with warnings that the background information in the movie — and best-selling novel by the same name — is false. Archbishop Angelo Amato, the second-in-command at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal arm, said Catholics should reject the movie’s “lies and gratuitous defamation.”

If “such lies and errors had been directed at the Koran or the Holocaust, they would have justly provoked a world uprising,” he said at a Catholic conference in Rome last month. “Instead, if they are directed against the church and Christians, they remain unpunished.”

The movie asserts that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that the two had a daughter. Female protagonist Sophie Neveu, played by Audrey Tautou, is the sole surviving descendant of that union.

The book, which has sold more than 40 million copies, is a fast-paced narrative that includes doses of spirituality, riddles and intrigue and an episode of ritual sex.

Still, “Christians must not just sit back and say it is enough for us to forgive and to forget,” Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze said in a documentary “The Da Vinci Code — A Masterful Deception,” made by Rome filmmaker Mario Biasetti.

“Sometimes, it is our duty to do something practical,” said the cardinal. “Legal means can be taken in order to get the other person to respect the rights of others.”

The book’s foes say the film will serve as a template that could drastically color how much of the world perceives Christianity. A survey of 1,000 Britons released this week by the polling firm Opinion Research Business showed that 60 percent of those who had read the book believed Jesus had children by Mary Magdalene, compared with 30 percent of those who had not read it.

Seventeen percent of the book’s readers also thought that Opus Dei — whose Mafia-like tactics in the film include an albino monk assassin — had resorted to murder to keep the church’s secrets, compared with 4 percent of nonreaders.

In Rome yesterday, Opus Dei invited journalists to visit a vocational school it operates in a working-class neighborhood and ask questions. It also has invited reporters to visit its national headquarters in New York, highlighted its charity work in Africa and released a video profiling group members.

Even though the film got a mostly negative reaction at its first press showing at Cannes, Catholic officials are not resting easy.

“Reporters have asked whether even a best-selling novel can seriously damage a Church of one billion believers,” wrote Monsignor Francis J. Maniscalco on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote on www.jesusdecoded.com. “No, in the long run, it cannot. But that is not the point. … If only one person were to come away with a distorted impression of Jesus Christ or His Church, our concern is for that person as if he or she were the whole world.”

Another Catholic group, Da Vinci Outreach, calls on consumers to “other-cott” the film by seeing another movie on opening weekend.

“There really is only one question for followers of Christ during this pivotal cultural moment: Do you think it’s appropriate to reward Sony Pictures with hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office for blaspheming Jesus Christ in such a flagrant and outrageous way?” said Matthew Pinto, coalition member and president of Ascension Press.

In the District, Monsignor K. Bartholomew Smith, pastor of St. Mary Mother of God Catholic Church in Chinatown, used his Sunday homily to discourage parishioners from seeing the film. He also recounted efforts by an advertiser to put a new sign on a billboard that is inaccessible without the use of church property and is visible from his rectory office.

Monsignor Smith said he had granted permission on his usual condition that the billboard not be for anything offensive to the Catholic faith. But before the billboard was up, he accidentally found out that it was for “The Da Vinci Code.” He immediately asked the work crew to leave church grounds and told the workers they could not return.

A man from the advertising agency frantically tried to get him to change his mind, and “in the course of the conversation, he offered money,” said the monsignor, adding that it was for “several weeks worth of Mass offerings.” Still, he refused.

“Now there’s a billboard going up — for United Airlines,” he told parishioners at the 7:30 p.m. service, prompting them to burst into applause.

Victor Morton contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire-service reports.

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