February 17, 2004 09:08 PM

Facing accusations that “The Passion of the Christ” is violent and anti-Semitic, Mel Gibson sat down with ABC’s Diane Sawyer for a lengthy defense of his controversial new movie.

“To be anti-Semitic is to be un-Christian. And I’m not (un-Christian),” the actor-director said in the taped interview, which aired Monday night.

The film, which depicts the last 12 hours in the life of Christ, has drawn complaints from some Jewish viewers who think “Passion” is anti-Jewish, or that it could at least inflame anti-Semitic biases.

But both Gibson and “Passion” star Jim Caviezel deny that the movie represents any such thing. “If (Gibson had) said, ‘Hey, I’m going to make an anti-Semitic film, would you like to join me?’ I wouldn’t have been part of a film like that,” Caviezel told the New York Post.

However, the director does not deny that the film’s violence will probably shock some moviegoers. “I wanted it to be shocking. And I also wanted it to be extreme. I wanted it to push the viewer over the edge. And it does that,” he told Sawyer.

Gibson also said that the movie represents “my version of what happened, according to the Gospels, and what I wanted to show — the aspects of it I wanted to show.”

If that proves to be too much for some viewers, he said, they do not have to see it. “If you want to leave halfway through, go ahead,” Gibson told Sawyer.

Meanwhile, the film is doing huge advance business among Christians. Churches across the nation have bought tickets in bulk, selling out theaters from Texas to Montana on opening day, Feb. 25, Reuters reports.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” a spokesman for the AMC theater chain said, noting that the interest in “Passion” eclipsed even that of hits like “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.”

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