December 18, 2003 05:09 PM

The Pope has reportedly given his blessing to Mel Gibson’s controversial “The Passion of the Christ,” according to reports.

As reported Wednesday by the National Catholic Reporter’s veteran Vatican correspondent, John L. Allen Jr., an unnamed senior Vatican official said: “The Holy Father watched and enjoyed the film. His comment afterwards was, ‘It is as it was.'”

The official interpreted the remark to mean that the pontiff, 83, regards the screen effort as a faithful depiction of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ as described in the New Testament, Allen wrote.

The film, which is due to open in the U.S. on Feb. 25 (Ash Wednesday), has already drawn fire from some Catholic clergy and scholars, as well as the Anti-Defamation League in New York, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and other Jewish organizations.

The critics fear that the film — which Gibson, 47, reportedly financed single-handedly for $25 million — could fuel anti-Semitism with its depiction of Jewish participation in the crucifixion of Jesus.

Gibson has reportedly addressed that criticism by editing “Passion” to show more “sympathetic” Jewish characters.

As noted by The Washington Post, John Paul II has made strenuous efforts to combat anti-Semitism: publicly apologizing for the church’s history of it, recognizing the state of Israel and visiting a Roman synagogue.

Given the pontiff’s history, his statements about so controversial a film are likely to remain guarded, Catholic officials tell the Post.

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