Netflix courts controversy with Middle East thriller ‘Messiah’

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.

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