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Praise the lord, pass the popcorn

Thousands expected to see Christian movies

Pastor Raffoul Najem notices a change among the students at Christian Fellowship Academy in Lowell around this time every year: Discipline problems drop, while discussion about social and moral issues increases.

He attributes the improvement to the Merrimack Valley Christian Film Festival in Lawrence, which his students visit every year during Holy Week. At the end of each showing, which always focuses on a Christian message, moviegoers are asked if they would like to pray or even take Jesus of Nazareth as their personal lord and savior.

''So many young people go forward and do actually commit their life to follow Jesus Christ, to make a commitment to change their lifestyle," Najem said.

The festival, at Showcase Cinemas in South Lawrence, opens today, Palm Sunday, and runs through Easter Sunday next weekend. Free of charge, the festival offers six movies aimed at adults and four children's movies.

''It's the most exciting evangelistic outreach you could be part of," said organizer Tom Saab. ''Everyone's excited. It's joyful. It's a glorious event."

The festival typically draws 12,000 to 15,000 people.

Some think this year's event may draw more than usual because of the record-breaking success of Mel Gibson's ''The Passion of the Christ." ''The Passion" is not part of the festival, but it appears to have tapped a growing interest in productions with a spiritual theme.

''I think now because of his success there may be more mainstream Hollywood people doing more things that are powerful and explosive in the way of Christian films," Saab said.

Saab, 50, who runs a real estate firm with offices in Methuen and Salisbury, started the festival 12 years ago. It has inspired spinoff versions in South Carolina, Florida, and California, which Saab also runs as part of a ministry.

No one gets paid for the festival. Organizers raise about $28,000 to $30,000 to rent the movie theater for the week and to pay for publicity and associated costs.

Some pastors see the festival as a tool for reaching the people who are not affiliated with a church, especially during Holy Week, when Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus.

''Some people may not go to church -- but they would like to do something or see something spiritual," said pastor Chip Thompson of New England Bible Church in Andover. ''So sometimes they will go to the theater and see a religious film, and find some help in that venue."

Most of the movies at the festival are not blockbusters, but they are finding audiences, at least partly through the festival. Najem noted that many Christians find movie theaters foreign territory nowadays, with the foul language and sexual content of many secular films.

''There's so much garbage out there. And cinemas have to play what they get. I think cinemas would rather play our type of stuff," Saab said.

The topics of the movies can vary widely. This year's offerings include ''Last Flight Out," about a washed-up pilot trying to rescue his former girlfriend from a drug-runner in Colombia with the help of a missionary dentist; ''Time Changer," about a Bible professor who travels from 1890 to the present; and ''SIX: The Mark Unleashed," about political prisoners trying to escape execution just before Armageddon.

Some Christian schools in the area send all or most of their students to the festival as a field trip. Najem, who is pastor of Community Christian Fellowship in Lowell, as well as administrator of the school associated with the church, said children from grades 1 through 12 go to the festival. The school has about 180 students, including preschool.

Nashua Christian Academy plans to send students this year, for the first time. Lisa Alajajian, who teaches eighth-grade Bible class there, plans to bring her students to the festival Wednesday.

Two years ago, while she was teaching physical education at Salem Christian School in Salem, N.H., she saw her students moved by attending the festival.

''I know they enjoyed it, and many actually were confronted by who Jesus was for them, and it was a life-changing event for them," Alajajian said. ''A lot of the films are written in a way that shows something is missing in someone's life, that there's a void that only God can fill."

Alajajian said the film festival dovetails with the school's curriculum, and also capitalizes on ''The Passion," which, she said, many students have already seen with their parents.

But Saab isn't a devotee of ''The Passion of the Christ," arguing it presents a lopsided view of Jesus because it spends so little time on the Gospel accounts of Jesus rising from the dead after the Crucifixion.

''I think 'The Passion' was a well-done, powerful motion picture. I just think . . . Mel Gibson missed the boat when it came to the resurrection," Saab said. ''The most important part of Christ was the resurrection. . . . Jesus is the only one that ever rose from the grave. He conquered death, and Mel Gibson missed it."

Saab said he has talked with moviegoers who do not know much about Jesus who came away from ''The Passion" thinking of him as merely a martyr for his beliefs, instead of the victor over death and the all-powerful, all-loving God whom Christians believe him to be.

''People walked out of that movie still searching for answers, wondering what it was all about," Saab said.

The answers about Jesus can be found in ''The Gospel of John," said Saab, who called it ''the most accurate portrayal of Christ ever produced on film."

The producers of the three-hour movie, which has appeared in other parts of the United States since its premiere in Toronto last September, sought Saab out.

During the producers' research, the Merrimack Valley Christian Film Festival came up as a good venue because of its theme and the crowds it draws, said Daphna Nussbaum, spokeswoman for the film's production company, Visual Bible International Inc. of Toronto.

''It just seemed like a perfect fit," Nussbaum said in an interview. ''This is a Christian movie, and it should be seen by as many people as possible -- especially since the Christian Film Festival's intention is to spread the word of God, which they're doing so well."

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