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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NTV's Plan To Screen 'Temptation' Irks Church

The stage is set for another tussle between the Russian Orthodox Church and NTV television, which has once again scheduled a screening of the controversial film "The Last Temptation of Christ" for Sunday night.

NTV twice scheduled the film this year, once during Easter, but both times pulled it in the face of church outrage. This time, NTV made the decision to schedule the film only after an on-air panel of expert jurors ruled that the film should be broadcast.

The film by U.S. director Martin Scorcese was condemned by conservative Christians in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, after its release in 1988, for a sequence depicting Jesus fantasizing, while on the cross, about being an ordinary man and having sex.

The film is banned in some countries, and major Western public access television companies have refused to show it.

The conflict, which has flared in Russia several times over the past eight months, is a test case for church influence in Russian society and the freedom of privately owned broadcasters. It has also helped NTV attract a great deal of publicity.

On Saturday, NTV made the film the first case in a new public affairs program called "Sud Idyot," or "The Court Is Now In Session," which is supposed to discuss important issues in the form of a court hearing.

In the first program, called "The Russian Orthodox Church vs. NTV," a six-member "jury" was split and the presenter of the show, Vladimir Voroshilov, handed down his own verdict as "judge," backing NTV's right to show the film.

NTV originally scheduled the film, considered blasphemous by many Christians worldwide, for Easter night this year, but backed down after protests from the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church and State Duma deputies.

It was then scheduled again for a late night slot on May 31, but NTV president Igor Malashenko canned it following a protest from Patriarch Alexy II of the Russian Orthodox Church and a rally of about 200 conservative Orthodox Christians in front of NTV offices in Ostankino.

But NTV is still keen to run the movie. Even before the result of Saturday's "trial", the company scheduled the film for prime time Sunday. In an apparent dig at the church, NTV said that if the television court had ruled against Scorcese's film, it would replace it with a 1930s Soviet anti-clerical comedy, "Prazdnik Svyatovo Yorgena," or "St. Yorgen's Day."During the "trial," an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, a Roman Catholic priest and an Orthodox Christian activist testified on behalf of the "plaintiff," while liberal Duma deputy Galina Starovoitova and a film critic were witnesses for the "defendant."

The "jury" was comprised of liberal Novye Izvestia editor Igor Golembiovsky, liberal Duma deputies Ella Pamfilova and Mikhail Men, actress Klara Luchko and pensioner Vera Mashirova.

The debate was strictly controlled by "Judge" Voroshilov and virtually reduced to a debate between two lawyers, both of whom were nominated by NTV. Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, official representative of the Moscow Patriarchate, and Leonid Parfyonov, NTV's general producer, said little during the show.

"It was a good and honest talk," Chaplin said in an interview, but the choice of "jurors" was "very biased," he said, adding that the debate had not settled the contraversy.

"Many Christians will continue to perceive this film in the same way as they used to," he said, adding that the church hierarchy is currently considering its future moves.

The Union of Orthodox Citizens, a religious nationalist umbrella organization, issued a statement Monday and sent it to the government, Duma and Federation Council, urging them to speak out on the issue.

"The obstinacy with which NTV is attempting to implement its plan is a sign that this is a conscious, premeditated provocation, aimed at the destabilization of our society," the statement said.

Valentin Lebedev, coordinator of the Union, said that NTV may eventually have to defend itself in a real, as opposed to staged, court for "offending citizens' religious feelings." Some of the union's member organizations plan to hold another rally in front of the television building, he said.

"Everything was staged; the result was predetermined," said Yevgeny Nikiforov, editor of the nationalist Orthodox newspaper Radonezh. He said that NTV's decision to show the film despite church protests demonstrates "the immaturity of our society."

NTV remains unrepentant. Tatyana Blinova, NTV spokesperson, said that the company "honestly wanted to show this film" and that the company had not expected a scandal.

Critics charge that NTV originally scheduled the film for Easter night to provoke the scandal and boost its advertising revenues. Some Orthodox protestors say that it is a deliberate slap at Russian Christians from NTV's Jewish leadership. The channel is owned by Vladimir Gusinsky, who is president of the Russian Jewish Congress. NTV vehemently denies both charges.

However, the decision to schedule the contraversial film for prime time could bring NTV financial benefits. In May, it was scheduled for 12:55 a.m., the time slot reserved for programs with nudity, when a minute of advertising costs $6,500. Now it is slotted for 10:15 p.m. Sunday, immediately after the popular "Itogi" current affairs show. According to Video International, NTV's advertising broker, commercials in this time slot cost $27,000 a minute.