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Controversial 'Passion' debuts nationwide

By Thom Patterson

Persons react as they watch a special screening of
Viewers react as they watch a special screening of "The Passion of the Christ" at a theater in El Paso, Texas, on Tuesday.

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Mel Gibson

(CNN) -- The opening of Mel Gibson's controversial "The Passion of the Christ" brought movie fans and religious leaders to more than 2,500 theaters across the nation on Ash Wednesday.

Questions about the film's alleged anti-Semitic tone and bloody depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus have raised interest in the movie. Sales of its companion book rose from No. 20 to No. 9 on on Wednesday.

Movie houses were packed from New York to Georgia to Texas, where some viewers exited with tears in their eyes.

By 11, three Wednesday night showings of the film were already sold out at a theater in Kennesaw, Georgia.

In Plano, Texas, thousands of moviegoers were treated to free showings of the film courtesy of businessman Arch Bonnema.

Bonnema set up the screenings after purchasing thousands of tickets for $42,000, according to a spokeswoman at his church.

"It was his passion," said Pat Spackey of the Prestonwood Baptist Church. "He was just so moved by the movie that he wanted everyone to be able to see it."

Spackey would only describe Bonnema as a businessman who isn't "all that wealthy. I think he just felt like this would be a good place to make a meaningful contribution."

With tears in her eyes, one woman exiting the Plano theater said, "Even more difficult for me were the scenes between Mary, the mother, and Jesus. Being a mother myself, those just tore my heart out thinking what that must have been like."

In New York, a small group of protesters holding placards accusing the movie of anti-Semitism, stood outside a packed Manhattan cineplex.

William Donahue, president of the Catholic League, said he planned to see the film again in New York with leaders of several other faiths, including Judaism. The Catholic League, according to its Web site, defends the right of Catholics to participate in American public life without defamation or discrimination.

"This is the most powerful movie I've ever seen in my life," Donahue said, adding that no film was going to break his ties with religious colleagues.

Donahue joined leaders of other religions in promoting the film and subsidizing tickets. "We first bought 1,200 tickets, subsidizing it at $5 a pop, even though it cost us $8 a pop," Donahue said. "We sold out in two days, so we bought 2,000 more tickets. And we sold out again within two days."

Some Jewish leaders have said the movie is anti-Semitic because it places blame for Jesus' death on the rabbis depicted in the film.

"We've got a film that's really white robes versus black robes," said Rabbi A. James Rudin of the American Jewish Community, which is committed to opposing anti-Semitism worldwide. "And the black robes belong to the traditional scapegoat in history, the Jewish people and the Jewish religion, and that's what makes me angry and very disappointed in this film."

Gibson has told ABC News that his movie is not anti-Semitic and that he is not an anti-Semite.

An avowed "Traditionalist Catholic," a splinter movement that believes in celebrating Mass in Latin and rejects changes in the church made by the Second Vatican Council, Gibson has said the film is intended "to inspire, not offend," according to a statement he released in June.

Cardinal Edward Egan, the Archbishop of New York, addressed the subject in a statement released Wednesday. "In the light of so much that is good and holy, I have no doubt that the Catholic and Jewish communities of New York will handle with grace and wisdom any and all upset that might result" from the film.

CNN's Eric Phillips contributed to this report.

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