A new movie in Iran depicts the life of Jesus from an Islamic perspective. "The Messiah," which some consider as Iran's answer to Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," won an award at Rome's Religion Today Film Festival for generating interfaith dialogue.
The movie will be adapted into a television series to be shown on Iranian TV later this year.
Filmmaker Nader Talebzadeh spoke to ABC's Lara Setrakian in Tehran.
LS: Why did you feel a movie showing Islam's take on Jesus needed to be made?
NT: I've been witnessing what's been going on in Iran for the past 28 years; I've been living here after I lived a decade in America. Everybody knows Jesus, so why not make a film about something everyone relates to? And made in Iran.
LS: What are the key differences between Jesus through Islam's eyes and Jesus through the traditional Christian perspective?
NT: We are talking about the same beautiful man, the same beautiful prophet, the same divine person sent from heaven. In the Koran, it emphasizes maybe three main points: about the birth, about the fact that he was not the son of God, and then, that he was not crucified. The rest is [the same] Jesus ... the sermons, and the miracles, and the political situation.
LS: So, when it comes to Jesus, the message and the reverence are there.
LS: But the virgin birth, the crucifixion...
NT: The virgin birth was the same. The difference in the Koran, God says Jesus was saved. Instead of having him hung and crucified, the person who betrayed Jesus was crucified. This is how the Koran sees it, through the Gospel of Barnabas.
LS: So, you gave the alternate ending.
NT: Yes, two endings. I thought, the Christians, when they see it, it'll be important for them. [In the Koran] God says, emphatically, he was not crucified. Somebody was crucified in his stead. In the Gospel of Barnabas, there are explications of this. The majority of [Muslims] say the one who betrayed Jesus [was crucified].
LS: There's plenty of news today about Christians being persecuted, or even killed, today, in Muslim countries. So, where does the Muslim reverence for Christians go off-track?
NT: It doesn't go off-track. The Muslim reverence is very high for Jesus and Mary. This is the misunderstanding in the West — especially in America.
LS: So, then, why in your mind do Muslims, in some places, kill Christians?
NT: Well, those are not Muslims. They're murderers. First and foremost, they're murderers, and they dress as Muslims. Today, we have that problem. There is an evil strain in those people. They're, first, evil, and then they find a religion to address that evil, or to explain it, or as an excuse. But that's a minority that is aggrandized, and it's elaborated — it's constant. So, when you hear the word "Islam," you get a shock. Every time you hear "Islam," you get a little shock. What we lack is communication.
LS: While production on this movie was happening, Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" came out. What did you learn from watching that film?
NT: We were almost finished filming when Mel Gibson started shooting. I saw the film, and it's the first time the Gospel of John has ever been depicted. It was nice. But it was the wrong story. In my film, I respect that common belief with all the good intentions the Christians have ... according to what Islam says. Yet, Jesus, at the night of the last supper, ascends to heaven [without being crucified]. A beautiful man, a beautiful prophet. Why should he be bloodied that way?
LS: What kind of response have you gotten from Christians? What kind of feedback and interchange has there been since the movie was released?
NT: Many thought this film is a good step for serious inter-religious dialogue. Many of them liked it — seeing the Koran-based ending. And I was very happy that the practicing Christians were very happy with the film. I have never found one case among practicing Christians who are offended [by the movie].
American Christians, I respect them very much. I think these Christians, the born-again Christians, especially, are a very interesting group that Iran is not aware of, because a whole generation of Iranians haven't been able to travel to America. And those who do move to America, stay in America. So, how to create serious communication, not at the political, but at the religious level? I thought this would be a shortcut.
LS: Any plans for a movie that would help the dialogue between Muslims and Jews?
NT: This film is about Jesus, who is the last Jewish prophet. The audience has to realize that Iranians have been living with Jews and Christians for centuries. Jews were saved by Iranian kings. This was always their home, and it still is their home. Also, the first Christian church was built in Iran. The first Christian tribe that became Christian, the first tribe — was the Armenians. Armenians were part of the Persian Empire ... they found comfort living with the Iranians.
LS: What is your hope for the movie?
NT: The film is an excuse to sit down and talk. Iran is so consistently demonized. Once an American visits Iran, they know it's a different story. So, how do we export our thinking? It's the movies. This is a film for students and for practicing Christians, for people to become curious, and go investigate more.
My hope for the movie was, and is, and will be, to make people think about how God sees the prophets, how God talks about Jesus in the Koran. What was the main message of Jesus? And what was censored out of history? Part of the message of Jesus was censored out, which was the coming of the next prophets.
If you listen to what Jesus said, Jesus talked about the Prophet Mohammad, many, many times. And it was eliminated in the Gospels and the Bibles that [made it through] history. In 325, the Council of Nice was out to destroy all the other Gospels. One of those Gospels was the Gospel of Barnabas, which I used in great detail.
LS: And what did that say that was left out?
NT: It had a lot of sermons of Jesus that you do not see in the Bible; miracles, and at least a hundred references to the Prophet Mohammad, about his coming. It's one of the biggest censorships of history. So, I thought somebody should say this, and then others might disagree, say, "Ahhh, this could not be! This is blasphemy!" But it's OK — this is the 21st century. It's time for information. It's time for communication. They can go check it out.
LS: Anything else you felt while making the film?
NT: I thought about Americans when I was shooting this ... I was thinking that I have very good memories of the '90s, living in Virginia, remembrances of kindness. The misunderstanding of the past three decades really burns my heart. There's so much misunderstanding about Islam today. And one of those key missing links, that would bind the chain together, is Jesus Christ.
I thought, we should work on talking through something that's much more dear to us than other things. I thought that, through art, you could do a lot more than with the politics.
Theo May contributed to this article.