Gary Susman
June 13, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Mel Gibson has kept mum over the last few months as controversy has swirled around his movie ”The Passion,” which depicts the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ. Now, however, he’s finally speaking out forcefully, defending the film he directed against concerns expressed Jewish and Catholic groups that the movie will be anti-Semitic and run counter to current Catholic teachings about the Crucifixion. ”To be certain, neither I nor my film is anti-Semitic,” he said in a statement released to Variety.

”’The Passion’ is a movie meant to inspire not offend,” Gibson said. ”My intention in bringing it to the screen is to create a lasting work of art and engender serious thought among audiences of diverse faith backgrounds (or none) who have varying familiarity with this story.”

Gibson had kept quiet about early reports that suggested the movie would blame the Jews for Christ’s execution, a notion that has sparked two millennia of anti-Semitism and that has been repudiated in recent years by the Vatican. As a result, the unfinished film had been criticized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. Gibson says in his statement that those criticisms were based on an early draft of the script that was leaked without authorization. In fact, USCCB released a statement of its own on Thursday, apologizing for criticizing the film prematurely and promising to return all copies of the leaked scripts to Gibson.

Gibson said that he does not harbor hatred for anyone based on race or creed, ”certainly not the Jews. They are my friends and associates, both in my work and social life. Thankfully, treasured friendships forged over decades are not easily shaken by nasty innuendo. Anti-Semitism is not only contrary to my personal beliefs, it is also contrary to the core message of my movie.” He added, ”This is a movie about faith, hope, love and forgiveness — something sorely needed in these turbulent times.”

Of course, Gibson’s toughest sell next spring may not be to theologians but to moviegoers. The movie, in which Jim Caviezel (”Angel Eyes”) plays Christ, was shot entirely in the ancient languages of Latin and Aramaic, and it won’t have English subtitles. Gibson has said that he wanted ”The Passion” to be as accurate as possible, and that the movie’s visuals should be enough tell the story, just like in a silent movie.

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