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DAN BROWN TOM HANKS
Alastair Grant  /  AP
Author Dan Brown stands with Tom Hanks, right, in London as a Eurostar train is named "The Da Vinci Code," shortly before the forthcoming film's stars boarded the special train en route for the Cannes premiere.
msnbc.com news services
updated 5/16/2006 4:11:49 PM ET 2006-05-16T20:11:49

“The Da Vinci Code” has undermined faith in the Roman Catholic Church and badly damaged its credibility, a survey of British readers revealed Tuesday as tensions over — and hype for — the forthcoming film reached a fever pitch.

As its stars off headed to walk the red carpet at Cannes, where the film was set to debut Wednesday before a worldwide release Friday, at least two countries limited the film's release.

The British survey, released by a group of prominent Catholics, revealed that readers of Dan Brown's blockbuster novel are twice as likely to believe Jesus Christ fathered children and four times as likely to think the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei is a murderous sect.

“An alarming number of people take its spurious claims very seriously indeed,” said Austin Ivereigh, press secretary to Britain’s top Catholic prelate Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. “Our poll shows that for many, many people “The Da Vinci Code” is not just entertainment.”

He heads a prominent collection of English Roman Catholic monks, theologians, nuns and members of Opus Dei, who commissioned the survey from pollster Opinion Research Business (ORB) and have sought to promote Catholic beliefs amid the film’s release.

ORB interviewed more than 1,000 adults last weekend, finding that 60 percent believed Jesus had children by Mary Magdalene — a possibility raised by the book — compared with just 30 percent of those who had not read the book.

The group, which stopped short of following the Vatican line of calling on Catholics to boycott the film, accused Brown of dishonest marketing based on peddling fiction as fact.

Ivereigh complained that Brown and film studio Sony Pictures “have encouraged people to take it seriously while hiding behind the claim that it is fiction.

“Our poll shows they should take responsibility for their dishonesty and issue a health warning.”

The novel, which has sold over 40 million copies, also depicts Opus Dei as a ruthless Machiavellian organization whose members resort to murder to keep the Church’s secrets.

In the survey, readers were asked if Opus Dei had ever carried out a murder. Seventeen percent of readers believe it had, compared with just four percent of non-readers.

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Opus Dei spokesman Jack Valero said he was astonished.

“Since we were founded in 1928, Opus Dei has promoted the highest moral standards at work, spreading a message of Christian love and understanding,” he said.

“Yet the Da Vinci Code has persuaded hundreds of thousands of people that we have blood on our hands.”

Release halted in India
Though controversy has largely emanated from Europe and the United States, India took perhaps the strongest move against the film Tuesday, temporarily halting its release until it could be screened for Catholic groups. The move came in response to sporadic protests by some Christian and Muslim groups.

Indian Catholic activist Joseph Dias
SEBASTIAN D'SOUZA  /  AFP/Getty Images
Indian Catholic activist Joseph Dias offers prayers at a protest rally Tuesday in Mumbai. Dias has begun a hunger strike, vowing to "fast unto death" unless "The Da Vinci Code" was banned in India after film censors cleared it for opening without cuts.
Information and Broadcasting Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi said he had received more than 200 complaints. The release “may be delayed by a day or two,” he said.

“We are a secular country. On any sensitive issue, we should take action after we examine every aspect,” Dasmunshi told reporters. “We have to be careful.”

The national censor in the largely Catholic Philippines, meantime, gave the film an “adults only” certificate on Tuesday, banning under-18s from viewing it. Consoliza Laguardia told reporters the film, based on the best-selling novel of the same title, required “mature discernment” because of a plot that involves Jesus Christ having a child with Mary Magdalene.

Movie and Television Review and Classification Board chairwoman Marissa Laguardia also cited scenes of “self-flagellation involving clerical assassination, violent images and a fleeting sexual ritual,” but she said the film did not directly attack the Catholic Church and did not merit an X-rating or any cuts.

Because SM cinemas, the largest chain of movie theatres in the Philippines, does not show R-18 films, the move will largely push “The Da Vinci Code” out of Philippine theaters. But it will hardly stop eager patrons from watching.

Laguardia said the movie would be a “test of faith” for many people in the Philippines.

“But it has to be shown,” she said. “Thirty-six countries have already reviewed this film and they have not banned it. So are we just out of the stone age?”

Manila’s hawkers have already started flogging a documentary on “The Da Vinci Code” as the real movie, and pirated copies of the feature film are expected to hit the streets soon.

In Thailand, a coalition demanded that government censors cut the film’s final 15 minutes.

“We asked that they cut out the conclusion of the movie that Jesus still has heirs alive today,” said a spokesman for the groups, Manoch Jangmook of the Evangelical Fellowship of Thailand.

A South Korean court rejected a request from a Christian group for an injunction blocking the screening of the movie, saying the group’s reasons lacked merit.

“As it is clear that the novel and movie are all fiction ... there is no probability that the movie can make viewers mistakenly believe the contents of the movie are facts,” chief judge Song Jin-hyun of the Seoul Central District Court said.

Last week, the Philippines’ powerful Catholic bishops gave priests guidelines on how to refute the book’s plot and reminded parishioners that the novel was a work of fiction. But they stopped short of calling for the film to be banned. But some younger Filipinos were angry at what they saw as faith intruding on entertainment.

“Something such as religion should not be a standard for whether we should let movies be played,” said Peterson Poon, 16. “It annoys me that I have to buy a DVD.”

Such local efforts come amid the Vatican's vocal effort to dissuade viewers worldwide from flocking to what church officials view as a misleading and heretical piece of work. The latest message came Monday, when the Vatican's culture minister portrayed the popularity of “Da Vinci” as a shocking indication of mass ignorance and the “voluptuous pleasure” the media take in promoting works with no basis in truth.

Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, told Europe 1 radio he had no objection to people seeing the film if they understand it is fiction, but many would watch this “nonsense” and think that it was true.

‘Shocking and worrying’
The film of the best-selling novel, which says Jesus had a child with Mary Magdelene and the Roman Catholic Church hushed this up, debuts at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday.

Poupard is the Vatican’s highest authority on cultural issues after Pope Benedict.

“This is a shocking and worrying cultural phenomenon that reflects, on the one hand, the ignorance of millions of people and, on the other, the voluptuous pleasure the media take in promoting products that have nothing to do with the truth,” the 75-year-old French-born cardinal told the radio station.

Italy’s most senior cardinal, Camillo Ruini, also lambasted the film’s plot as “fantasies and falsifications” but said he believed people were more fascinated by truth than illusions.

“If it is clear this has nothing to do with truth and it amuses you to go see it, why not?” he said when asked if movie-goers should boycott the film, which stars Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou.

In recent weeks, cardinals have urged everything from a boycott of the film by Catholics to legal action against both the novel and the film.

But the dust-up hardly dissuaded “Da Vinci's” stars from taking a turn in the spotlight. Tom Hanks and his fellow cast members set off Tuesday for Cannes on the high-speed Eurostar train.

The special train, nicknamed The Da Vinci Code for the occasion, was in pursuit of a world record. Going nonstop over the 883 miles from London to the festival in southern France would put it into the Guinness World Records book.

Hanks, who plays Robert Langdon in the film, posed for pictures Tuesday at London's Waterloo station with Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Paul Bettany, Jean Reno and Alfred Molina, director Ron Howard and author Dan Brown.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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