Representatives of two Jewish groups who attended screenings of Mel Gibson’s upcoming movie “The Passion of the Christ” said Thursday it contained offensive stereotypes about the Jewish role in the crucifixion.

The American Jewish Committee, which sent its interfaith experts to church screenings in Florida and Illinois, said the movie contained “unnecessary and destructive imagery of Jews” and “represents a disturbing setback” to relations between Jews and Christians.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who has accused Gibson of holding anti-Semitic views, saw the film for the first time Wednesday night in Florida. He said it is an “unambiguous portrayal of Jews as being responsible for the death of Jesus.”

Gibson, who directed, funded and co-scripted the film, has repeatedly denied that his movie maligns Jews. His spokesman, Alan Nierob, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Jewish groups have been worried that Gibson’s script would ignore modern teaching by the Roman Catholic Church and many other denominations that Jews were not collectively responsible for Christ’s death. The notion of Jewish guilt fueled anti-Semitism for centuries.

An article about the film in The New Yorker magazine last September indicated Gibson would keep a biblical verse out that upsets Jews and has been used to justify anti-Semitism: “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25). That verse was not included in a version of the film The Associated Press saw last month.

But Rabbi James Rudin, a longtime interfaith expert for the American Jewish Committee, a New York-based public policy group, Rabbi David Elcott, the organization’s director of interreligious affairs, and Foxman all said the verse was now in the film. The movie is scheduled to be released on Ash Wednesday – Feb. 25.

“It’s very disturbing that that was added,” Rudin said. “It’s not just another verse from the Gospels. It’s a chilling verse because I know, and everyone knows, that that verse is the basis of blood libel.”

Elcott said the movie was not anti-Semitic, but called it “inflammatory” instead. And he said he did not anticipate any violence against Jews as a result of the movie.

But he, Rudin and Foxman, feared it would generate ill will toward Jews, especially overseas, where anti-Semitism is on the rise.

“The movie undermines the sense of community that has existed between Jews and Christians for decades,” Elcott said. “This film makes it more important than ever for like-minded Christians and Jews to reassert their dedication to promoting interfaith harmony.”

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