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Netflix courts controversy with Middle East thriller 'Messiah'

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Los Angeles (AFP)

A prophet who defies a resurgent Islamic State in Syria. A shooting on Jerusalem's sacred Temple Mount. And -- just possibly -- the coming of the Messiah.

Netflix could scarcely have picked a more controversial plot for its latest thriller, about a mysterious religious leader who emerges in the Middle East and is pursued across the globe by the CIA.

"Yes it's provocative -- the show is provocative," creator Michael Petroni told AFP. "But provocative isn't offensive."

"Messiah," out January 1, imagines how modern society would react if such a figure appeared, spreading his message rapidly via social media in a world grappling with "fake news" and breathless 24-hour bulletins.

The question of whether the character -- played by Belgian actor Mehdi Dehbi -- is the genuine Messiah, a nefarious political agent or simply a trickster is at the heart of the show's premise.

Petroni admits Netflix were "nervous" when he came to them with his idea.

"It was such an audacious concept, you know?" he said. "You read the pilot, this guy is going to march 2,000 Palestinian Syrians across the border of Israel."

That concept included building, at considerable expense, a scale replica of part of Temple Mount including the sacred Dome of the Rock, from where Muslims believe the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.

Filming at the iconic site was never a remote possibility -- particularly given the violent nature of the scene in the show's second episode.

But Petroni insists the show "doesn't set out to offend anyone."

"It's not like I'm welcoming backlash," he added. "We expect that there's going to be a lot of noise around the show, and a lot of debate. I'm hoping for debate."

A Change.org petition has already been launched calling for a boycott of the show, describing it as "evil and anti-Islamic propaganda."

In "Messiah" it is not specified to which faith the enigmatic leader -- referred to by some characters as "Al-Masih" -- subscribes.

Petroni refuses to be drawn on his own religion. But two of the show's producers, husband-and-wife Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, have a background in Christian faith-based programming.

- 'Super careful' -

Setting the action at such a sacred location as Temple Mount was necessary because it is a nexus of religion where Christianity, Islam and Judaism all converge, said Petroni.

"Obviously historically they don't meet up happily. But that is where they all meet up. And so to me as a location to a story that's about politics and religion, it was so symbolic."

Filming took place in Jordan as well as the US, with action switching between the Middle East, Texas and Washington DC -- providing an additional set of challenges.

Characters, including the dogged CIA agent played by Michelle Monaghan (the "Mission: Impossible" series), flit between English, Hebrew and Arabic -- often mid-conversation.

Other US shows such as "Homeland," which drew criticism over its portrayal of the Middle East and Muslims, have been embarrassed by cultural and linguistic pitfalls.

That show saw a Hezbollah commander escort its heroine through a Berlin set doubling as a Syrian refugee camp, on which someone had graffitied in Arabic the words: "Homeland is racist."

The first trailer for "Messiah," released earlier this month, drew ridicule from some Muslim viewers, who noted that the name "Al-Masih" is used in Islamic theology by Dajjal, a false prophet comparable to the Antichrist.

Netflix quickly moved to quash claims this was a spoiler -- its Twitter account accurately noted "That's not actually the character's name" -- and plot details remain strictly embargoed.

Petroni, an Australian whose father grew up in Egypt, does not speak Arabic, and neither did the directors -- meaning the show had to hire an experienced and reliable team of translators and dialect coaches.

"We were super careful," said Petroni.

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