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NatGeo Channel Casts Muslim Actor to Star in 'Killing Jesus'

NatGeo Channel Casts Muslim Actor to Star in 'Killing Jesus'

National Geographic Channel has announced the cast for Killing Jesus, its third adaptation — after Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy — of a bestselling historical thriller by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and historian Martin Dugard, and American actor Haaz Sleiman, who’s originally from Lebanon, has snagged the title role.

Born in the United Arab Emirates but raised in Lebanon, Sleiman moved to the U.S. when he was 21 and currently lives in Los Angeles. He’s best known for playing a Syrian immigrant in the 2008 indie film The Visitor. He’s also appeared in Showtime’s Nurse Jackie (as a gay Muslim nurse); NBC’s ER (as an American soldier); and Fox’s 24 (as a terrorist suspect in 2007).

Most recently, he had a recurring role in USA Network’s Covert Affairs, and in the CBS dramas Person of Interest (which stars Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ) and Reckless.

Sleiman is not particularly outspoken about his faith, but on his Facebook page, he’s shared Christmas greetings the last couple of years.

On December 25, 2012, he wrote “A Muslim and a Jew celebrating Christmas, that’s what happened last night when I spent Xmas eve with a very good friend. Merry Christmas! Giving you lots of love and wishing you tremendous happiness today and everyday of your lives.”

Then, last Christmas Day, he posted, “Christians, Jews, Muslims, spiritual, buddhists, atheists or an other believers or non believers: Merry Christmas to you all! ‘Love our neighbor as ourselves.’ Jesus Christ. He said it best.”

In 2011, he did share Muslim greetings on Nov. 6, posting, “EID MUBARAK! Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or any other believers or non believers…Much love!”

Haaz also told WGBH in an interview that he was raised Muslim. “I used to pray five times a day, then I decided to be a bad Muslim for a bit.” 

Although Caviezel is an orthodox Catholic, being a believer has never been a criteria for playing Jesus (although good looks usually is, and that’s the case again with Sleiman).

Jeremy Sisto, who played the role in the 1999 CBS miniseries Jesus, has said, “I’m not actually a religious person.” 

Robert Powell, the star of the 1977 Franco Zeffirelli miniseries Jesus of Nazareth has been quoted as saying, “I hope Jesus Christ will be the last in my line of sensitive young men for quite a while.”

However, one blogger at Patheos’ Progressive Christian Channel, is very happy that a man of Middle Eastern descent is playing the role, writing, “Thanks be to God that Killing Jesus is killing White Jesus.”

But, while hiring a Lebanese Arab to play a first-century Jew is closer than, say, hiring WASP Jeffrey Hunter to play Christ in 1961’s Biblical epic King of Kings–or Norwegian/Maori/English/Scottish/Irish, etc., New Zealand-born Russell Crowe to play the title role in Noah–the rest of the Killing Jesus cast is not uniformly particular about matching up ethnicities.

Among the highlights are Welsh-born Aneurin Barnard (The White Queen) as James; Canadian Emmanuelle Chriqui (Entourage), the daughter of Moroccan Jewish immigrants, as Herodia; Welsh John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark) as Annas; Joe Doyle (Reign) as Judas; Northern Irish John Lynch (Sliding Doors) as Nicodemus; Irish Eoin Macken (The Night Shift) as Antipas; British Rufus Sewell (Hercules) as Caiaphas; British Stephen Moyer (True Blood) as Pontius Pilate; and American Kelsey Grammer (Partners, Boss, Frasier) as King Herod.

Reviews of the book version of Killing Jesus have been mixed as the  reception for the previous two books, with the U.K. Guardian saying that O’Reilly created “a Tea Party Son of God.” The Washington Times wrote: “So conscientious for pinpoint accuracy are the authors of Killing Jesus that they end up excluding some scriptural quotes that more modern scholars have questioned, and there are historical quotes they tweak.”

“The film Killing Jesus will break new ground in chronicling the life of the most famous human being who ever lived. The superb cast and script reflect much thought and research,” O’Reilly said, according to a press release. “Viewers are in for something very different and very special.”

But if Killing Jesus, which is being shot in Morocco, far from Richmond, Virginia, location for the first two movies, follows the pattern of its predecessors, the script by veteran writer Walon Green will chart its own course, using O’Reilly and Dugard’s book less as a roadmap than as a jumping-off point.

Killing Jesus is expected to premiere globally on National Geographic Channel in 2015, airing in 171 countries and 45 languages, including in Spanish on NatGeo Mundo. The production team is the same as for the previous films. Joining O’Reilly as executive producers are Ridley Scott, David Zucker, Mary Lisio and Teri Weinberg (for Scott Free Productions); and Heather Moran and Charlie Parsons (for NatGeo Channel).

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