Cineworld cancels The Lady of Heaven film screenings after protests

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People protesting outside the Light shopping centre in LeedsImage source, @abx_bakr

Cineworld has cancelled all UK screenings of a film about the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, after it prompted protests outside some cinemas.

The cinema chain said it made the decision "to ensure the safety of our staff and customers".

More than 120,000 people have signed a petition for The Lady of Heaven film to be pulled from UK cinemas.

The Bolton Council of Mosques called the film "blasphemous" and "underpinned with a sectarian ideology".

But the film's producer, Malik Shlibak, said "no one should dictate for the British public what they can and cannot watch or discuss", describing the protesters as "fringe groups".

'Disrespects esteemed individuals'

The film, which was released in UK cinemas on 3 June, claims to tell the story of Lady Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad.

It has been criticised by some groups for depicting the Prophet Muhammad - which is seen as an insult in Islam - and for its portrayal of prominent revered figures in early Sunni Islam.

It was pulled from the Cineworld chain after reported protests in Bolton, Birmingham and Sheffield.

In Bolton, more than 100 people protested outside the cinema, Bolton News reported.

In an email to Cineworld - reported by Bolton News - Bolton Council of Mosques chairman Asif Patel said the film was "underpinned with a sectarian ideology" and "misrepresents orthodox historical narratives and disrespects the most esteemed individuals of Islamic history".

The Muslim news site 5Pillars also shared a picture on Twitter of what it said showed 200 Muslims protesting against the film outside a Birmingham branch of Cineworld on Sunday.

Video footage circulating online appears to show a manager of a Cineworld cinema in Sheffield informing protesters that a screening of the film had been cancelled, the Guardian reported.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

Mr Shlibak criticised the decision by Cineworld to pull the film, saying it was "cowering" to the protesters' demands.

He told the BBC: "Now they see any time they're upset or mildly offended they'll do the same."

Mr Shlibak added that there were millions of Muslims in the UK, and the protesters did not represent all of their views.

"We need to be very careful not to cower down to that and do the exact opposite, which is say to the people that we are tolerant, we accept different views and positions and we're happy to disagree, even passionately, but there should be no censorship involved."

But he also said the protests would fail at shutting down the film, adding that a "large, large population across the UK have just heard about the film for the first time, so that's brilliant for us".

'Incredibly dangerous road'

Health Secretary Sajid Javid also criticised the decision to pull the film.

Speaking to TalkTV on Wednesday, the health secretary said: "You might not like what someone's got to say, but they have a right to say it."

Mr Javid pointed out that there are no blasphemy laws in the UK and warned that would be "an incredibly dangerous road to go down".

"What we have in this country is freedom of speech and expression and that is a fundamental value," he added.

Unlike some incidents in the past, opposition to the film is not primarily about the way the Prophet Mohammed is depicted - though there is a CGI portrayal of him in it.

Criticism mainly centres around the way the Shia Muslim film-maker and cleric Yasser Al-Habib has portrayed prominent revered figures in early Sunni Islam, implying that there are comparisons between their actions with those of the Islamic State group in Iraq.

Leaders of the protests have said while they want the film banned, their demonstrations were peaceful, but cinemas clearly felt their behaviour was intimidating enough to warrant screenings to be pulled.

Outrage since that happened - including from some Muslims who had wanted to see the film - has been because a relatively small number of people have managed to exert their will in a way that that appears to normalise censorship on the grounds of blasphemy.

The Muslim Council of Britain, the UK's largest Muslim umbrella organisation, has described the film as "divisive".

In a statement on Sunday, the organisation said it "supports those scholars and leaders who are advocating for greater unity and for the common good".

"There are some - including many of this film's supporters or those engaging in sectarianism in their response - whose primary goal is to fuel hatred," the statement added.

Screenings of the film were still scheduled for Wednesday at a number of Vue cinemas in London and south-east England.

Image caption,
Screenings went ahead at this Vue cinema in west London, despite protests outside

In a statement, a spokesperson said: "Vue takes seriously the responsibilities that come with providing a platform for a wide variety of content and believes in showcasing films of interest to diverse communities across the UK.

"Vue will only show a film once the BBFC (the independent British Board of Film Classification) has assessed and rated a film. The Lady of Heaven has been BBFC accredited and is on show in a number of our cinemas."

The company would not confirm whether any screenings had been cancelled, but added: "Decisions about how long a film remains on show are taken on a site-by-site basis and based on a variety of commercial and operational factors."

A spokesperson for Cineworld said: "Due to recent incidents related to screenings of The Lady of Heaven, we have made the decision to cancel upcoming screenings of the film nationwide to ensure the safety of our staff and customers."

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