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Why a Muslim actor plays Jesus in Bill O’Reilly’s ‘Killing Jesus’ TV special

The Lebanese-born Haaz Slieman says he was excited to portray Jesus, a person he describes as “the ultimate teacher” who has “heavily influenced” his life. - Image courtesy of the National Geographic Channel
The Lebanese-born Haaz Slieman says he was excited to portray Jesus, a person he describes as “the ultimate teacher” who has “heavily influenced” his life. - Image courtesy of the National Geographic Channel

The Lebanese-born Haaz Sleiman says he was excited to portray Jesus, a person he describes as “the ultimate teacher” who has “heavily influenced” his life. – Image courtesy of the National Geographic Channel

“Bless you for playing Jesus, peace be upon him.”

This was the reaction of Lebanese-born actor Haaz Sleiman’s mother upon learning that her son had been cast as Jesus in National Geographic Channel’s “Killing Jesus.” The three Abrahamic religions will collide on March 29 when the television special premieres, and the 24-year-old Muslim actor stars as Jesus, the Jewish rabbi that Christians believe was God in the flesh.

The television movie is adapted from the New York Times bestselling book by Fox News host and Roman Catholic Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Sleiman digested the book among others in preparation for the role. He says he was excited to portray Jesus, a person he describes as “the ultimate teacher” who has “heavily influenced” his life.

Both the book and film retell Jesus’ crucifixion and accounts of his resurrection. Muslims do not believe either of these events occurred, and although Sleiman says he was not aware of these historical discrepancies prior to accepting the role, they were not concerns for him.

“As an actor my number one focus was to be on the same page with the writer, director, and producers,” he said.

Image courtesy of Henry Holt & Co.

NatGeo’s TV special is adapted from the bestselling book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard – Image courtesy of Henry Holt & Co.

Christians believe that Jesus was both divine and human, while Muslims accept only his humanity. The script’s focus on this aspect of Jesus is something that Sleiman said was important to him.

“The idea that we got to focus on the humanity of Jesus was very inspiring and empowering to me,” Sleiman said. “It is what Jesus came to show us, the beauty of humanity and the love we are capable of having towards one another; even to love your own enemy.”

When Sleiman was asked for his reaction to any disapproval from conservative Christians to a Muslim playing Jesus, the actor replied, “I cannot speak for Jesus, but I can quote his teachings and he said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’… How would he react to me playing Jesus? He wouldn’t judge it. He wouldn’t judge his own enemy … playing this part highlights his teaching in a very nice way.”

But even some conservative Christians who are uncomfortable with Sleiman playing Jesus should be pleased by the effort to cast a person of Middle Eastern decent in its lead role. Ridley Scott, executive producer on “Killing Jesus,” was widely criticized for casting white actors to play Egyptians and Hebrews in “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and for saying it would have been impossible to finance the movie by casting “Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.”

Scott’s reasoning didn’t seem to apply to this film, and during the week preceding Easter, television audiences can decide for themselves whether it was the right choice.

Sleiman says that he hopes people of all faiths, including Muslims, will watch “Killing Jesus” on Sunday, March 29 at 8 pm on the National Geographic channel and be transformed by Jesus like he has been.

“Today more than ever we need to apply [Jesus’] teachings in our lives,” he said.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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