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Aide: Pope did not endorse Gibson film

Mel Gibson directing Jim Caviezel as Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ."

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ROME, Italy (Reuters) -- In the latest twist in a saga involving the Vatican and Mel Gibson's controversial film about the death of Christ, Pope John Paul II's closest aide has denied reports the pontiff had praised the film's Biblical accuracy.

Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope's long-time private secretary, told the Catholic News Service Monday: "The Holy Father told no one of his opinion of this film."

In the past seven weeks, major world media organizations have written reports based on Church sources saying the pope liked the film and that he told aides that it was an accurate portrayal of Biblical accounts of Christ's final hours.

"The Passion of the Christ" is based on Gospel narratives and contains dialogue only in Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic, the vernacular of ancient Palestine. It opens on Ash Wednesday, February 25.

The movie, which covers the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ, has come under fire from some Jewish groups that fear its story could foment anti-Semitism because it portrays Jewish authorities as largely responsible for Christ's death.

Dziwisz issued his denial after weeks of reports that the pope had told aides after seeing the film: "It is as it was."

Dziwisz told Catholic News Service: "The Holy Father saw the film privately in his apartment, but gave no declaration to anyone. He does not make judgments on art of this kind. He leaves that to others, to experts."

Supporters had seen the words attributed to the pope as an endorsement of the film's Biblical accuracy, but some Jews worried that they could harm Roman Catholic-Jewish relations.

On Sunday, columnist Frank Rich of the New York Times, who is Jewish, accused the film's producers of "roping him (the pope) into a publicity campaign to sell a movie."

Vatican spokesmen have repeatedly declined officially to confirm or deny the numerous reports over the past month.

Some Catholic and other Christian groups have defended the film, saying it sticks closely to accounts of the crucifixion as told in the New Testament.

The film has been shown to a select audience of Catholic officials in several private screenings in recent weeks.

Many Vatican officials have seen it in whole or part and have rejected charges that it is anti-Semitic.

Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, head of the Vatican department in charge of priests, said in September: "I would gladly trade some of the homilies that I have given about the passion of Christ for even a few of the scenes of his film."

Gibson reportedly paid $20 million to $25 million of his own money to make the movie, but despite his status as a top box office draw and Oscar winner, Hollywood's major studios shied away from distributing it because of the controversy.

Gibson is a member of a traditionalist Roman Catholic group that rejects some of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and still uses the old-style Latin Mass.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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