Last week Mary Magdalene was placed on Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni's desk, and she emerged unscathed. Egypt's citizens can relax. At the last minute more clashes between Copts and Muslims were averted.

The screening of "The Da Vinci Code" was banned in Egypt after the minister of culture removed all copies of the book from store shelves. The pretext: The book and the film relate that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, the couple had children and their descendants are alive to this day and living in a secret society called the Priory of Sion.

Coptic members of parliament objected, vocally, including Georgette Sobhi, who waved copies of the book in parliament and asked for it to be banned for insulting the Catholic faith. Sobhi is an MP from the ruling National Democratic Party, who only days earlier had signed a petition calling for the opposition member Ayman Nur's release from prison. She removed her signature from the petition when she needed the government's help to ban the book. Political rights and freedom of expression, after all, do not mesh with political ambition.

A Coptic bishop, Matthias Nasser, explained in newspaper interviews that the problem is not the book in and of itself, but the fact that "we do not have freedom of thought and cultural maturity here - our youth might feel that their religion is being made fun of and then go out to demonstrations, something that will shake the stability of the nation."

However, "the stability of the nation" was already shaken this year in Alexandria when a Muslim man attacked worshipers in a church and in response, the Copts turned out in huge demonstrations that even spilled over to the streets of Cairo.

The last thing Egypt needs now is new religious riots, and if to avoid that, it is necessary to ban a book or film, then so it shall be. The interesting thing is that in an instant a religious coalition was formed between the Copts and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose leader, Mehdi Akef, declared that his movement objects to any strike against religion. Other Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen went even further and said that the film is similar in nature to the caricatures made in Denmark mocking the Prophet Mohammed and that "the war of cultures is more threatening than nuclear war."

However, "The Da Vinci Code" is circulating in Egyptian cities, either as hardcover books or DVDs at street stalls. Actually, the ads for the film were in theaters in late May, and the films' distributors had received original copies to give out, but then came the minister of culture's request and distribution stopped.

What if, if instead of landing on the minister of culture's desk, the film had reached the desk of the council of state? This is another dinosaur-like institution that functions as an administrative court and issues binding decisions to government institutions. Would Jesus have received there the status of a public figure whose life story can be told by anyone and then no one could be prevented from producing a film about him, or would Jesus have been defined otherwise, in order not to embarrass the Coptic Church?

Public property

This does not refer to a hypothetical question but to a ruling made this month by the Egyptian council of state regarding an important matter: Are famous actors public figures about whom anyone may produce a film, or are they private people whose permission must be obtained to tell their story in public? The decision related to the noted actress Suad Hosni, who jumped to her death in London in 2001. Hosni is an idol admired by the Egyptian public as well as by the Arab world at large. According to her own testimony before her death, she was married to the hugely popular singer Abd AlHaleem Hafiz, a marriage that was never publicized while the singer was alive "in order not to hurt his female fans," according to Hosni.

Hosni earned the name "the Cinderella of the screen," and "Cinderella" is the name of the series stirring controversy. Hosni's family objected, saying they owned the rights to Hosni's story. But the council of state said that famous actors are public figures, and therefore any person has the right to describe a star's life story in public. This decision forced the censor, who is subordinate to the same minister of culture who banned the distribution of "The Da Vinci Code," to permit the production of the television series about Hosni.

Now only the question of rights remains. And there is likely to be a huge fight over this, because one producer has already paid Hosni's heirs three million Egyptian pounds for the rights. But then the head of television operations in Cairo's film facility announced that he was starting to screen episodes of a series titled "Cinderella." After all, if Hosni is public property, there is no issue of rights here.

The controversy is now moving through the courts, but it raises a question that relates directly to "The Da Vinci Code" and Egyptian censorship: If Hosni is public property, then so is Jesus. And if it is permissible to distort Hosni's life story, then that is all the more so the case with Jesus' life story, or vice versa.