Cairo: Since it was released for public viewing earlier this month in this predominantly Muslim country, Hassan and Morqos, a comedy starring Egypt's top movie actors Omar Sharif and Adel Imam, has been a crowd-puller and the focus of press reviews.

Hassan and Morqos is hailed by many cinema-goers and entertainment critics as breaking the taboo of looking into relations between Muslims and Christians in Egypt.

The big-budget film explores reasons for religious intolerance on both sides. It tells the story of Bolos, a theology scholar (played by Imam) whose hostile speech targeting the Coptic Ãmigrs makes him the target of a bid on his life unleashed by Christian fanatics. He miraculously survives the bid. Meanwhile, Mahmoud (portrayed by Sharif) is a devout Muslim herbalist, who is summoned to steer the helm of an extremist Muslim group, previously led by his younger brother, who was killed in a gun-battle with police. Mahmoud spurns the leadership offer, and as such is targeted by the enraged Muslim extremists.

With their lives now threatened, Bolos and Mahmoud are ordered by a top police officer to change their identity and go into hiding. Thus, Bolos becomes iconic Muslim preacher Shaikh Hassan. Mahmoud is, meanwhile, disguised as Morqos, a Coptic businessman, who has allegedly returned from the US. During this predicament, their families become neighbours with even their children falling in love, unhindered by religious restraints.

"What is mainly significant about Hassan and Morqos is its ability to raise a highly sensitive issue," said film critic Ahmad Al Nejmi.

"Previously, silence was maintained on this issue since Egypt started to experience [Muslim-Christian tensions] three decades ago," he told Gulf News.

Since the mid-1970s, tensions between followers of both religions in Egypt have not been uncommon. Last month, a Muslim was killed in clashes between Muslim nomads and monks at a monastery in Minya, some 250km south of Cairo in a dispute over land. Christians are believed to account for 10 per cent of Egypt's 78 million population.

"Although being a comedy in its genre, this film provides an unprecedented insight into intolerance on both sides," said Fawzy Hanein, a 23-year-old Christian, as he emerged from a central Cairo cinema-house.

"It sternly warns that official gatherings attended by Christian and Muslim clerics will not help defuse Muslim-Coptic tensions, and that tolerance holds the key," Hanein told this paper.

In an early scene in the film, Muslim and Christian clergymen are seen heading for the 51st annual national convention for Muslim-Christian dialogue. Walking down to the convention, two priests dismiss the gathering and complain about allegedly severe curbs placed by the Egyptian government on building churches and on allowing Christians to hold top posts. Similarly, two Muslim clerics are engaged in a conversation about the Christians' control of the national economy.

"The blunt message is that such official meetings are a useless hypocrisy," Khairya Al Bashlawi, a film critic, told Gulf News. "The final scene of the film [showing a bloody fight between young Muslim and Christians], rams home the message that the price of fanaticism is paid by Muslims and Christians alike," she added.

Sharif, who left Egypt in the early 1960s for Hollywood recently said he always wanted to appear in a film tackling Muslim-Christian relations in his homeland.

"When I returned to Egypt in 1983 to star in the film Ayoub I was shocked at the sectarian contradictions, which have sometimes developed into sectarian confrontations," Sharif, a Christian who converted to Islam, told local magazine Al Musawwar.

"Until the 1970s, Egypt did not know religious intolerance," he said.

Last year, a 45-year-old Muslim man stabbed a Coptic Christian in Alexandria, Sharif's hometown, sparking three days of sectarian clashes. The assailant was declared mentally ill after a medical evaluation.

Although being a comedy in its genre, this film provides an unprecedented insight into intolerance on both sides."