JAKARTA, Indonesia &

A movie drawing record numbers of Indonesians is not a Hollywood blockbuster, but a local love story that is tapping national religious pride in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

For many, "Verses of Love" offers a remedy to Islam's battered image following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with the handsome, young protagonist trying to remain true to his faith as he watches his seemingly idyllic life crash down around him.

Despite his troubles, he manages to pass on gentle lessons about tolerance, corruption, women's rights and interfaith relations.

"Nowadays many people associate Islam with terrorism and its tendency toward violence and war," said Hanung Bramantyo, the 32-year-old director who has several other pop-religion projects in the pipeline. "I wanted to show Islam in a positive way. It is based on love, patience and sacrifice."

The movie &

which drew 2.9 million viewers in the first three weeks &

follows the path of Fahri Abdullah Shiddiq, who goes to Egypt to study the Quran at the prestigious Al-Azhar University.

After enthusiastically taking part in his lessons, the 27-year-old struggles to choose a wife among four beautiful and distinctly different women. He eventually settles on the veiled, dark-eyed Aisha, who before long is pregnant.

Their picture-perfect life, however, is turned upside down after Fahri is falsely accused of rape, imprisoned and threatened with death by hanging. The only person who can prove his innocence is Maria, a close friend who is literally dying of a broken heart after learning about his marriage.

Desperate to save her husband, Aisha begs him to take Maria, a Coptic-Christian, as a second wife. He does so reluctantly and then struggles to be fair to both loves in practicing polygamy &

which is accepted in Indonesia but remains hugely controversial.

"I hope this movie will help teach Muslims more about our faith and especially about the treatment of women," said Ine Sudrajat, a 42-year-old housewife after leaving the packed theater at a plush shopping mall in central Jakarta with five friends.

Nina Triana, a 29-year-old accountant who went to the movie with her boyfriend, agreed.

"I liked it," she said, heading to a nearby prayer room as crowds rushed past her. "It shows Islam is peaceful and teaches us to help each other, regardless of faith."

"Ayat-ayat Cinta," as the film is titled in Indonesian, is one of the first here to intertwine religion and popular culture on the big screen. Its release comes as many in the secular, democratic country of 235 million are longing for a spiritual revival after decades of dictatorship. The late President Suharto suppressed the dominant faith during his 32-year rule, which collapsed amid massive street protests in 1998.

Today women are increasingly wearing headscarves, Islamic book fairs are packed with university students and teens, business executives are going on religious retreats with their employees and some regions are experimenting with sharia-based laws.

Makruf Jamhari, the executive director at the Center for the Studies of Islam and Society at State Islam University, said the movie's popularity is partially the result of a changing society and growing religious pride.

But it's also just good entertainment.

"Indonesians have been yearning for such a movie," he said, "and this one happens to contain moral messages."

In one of the most dramatic scenes, an Egyptian man lashes out at a veiled woman who gives her seat on a packed Cairo train to an elderly American tourist, an "infidel," he says, whose nation has waged war against Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Fahri jumps in, telling the man he is defying the Prophet Muhammad, who said all foreigners who enter a country legally should be welcomed with open arms.

The point, says director Bramantyo, was not to portray Fahri as a hero against anti-U.S. sentiment, but to show that many religious conflicts today stem from differing interpretations among adherents.

"Whenever a Muslim speaks the truth," he says, "the opponent is almost always another Muslim."

Indonesians have long prided themselves for being moderate and tolerant.

But they too have grappled with a rise in extremism since 9/11. Militants have carried out a string of suicide bombings in the name of their faith, together killing more than 240 people, many of them foreign tourists.

That &

and negative Western stereotypes of Islam &

has taken a toll on the collective psyche.

Though the movie is only being shown in Indonesia, Sarah Sayekti, a social worker who often travels to Europe, says she hopes it "will help show the world that Islam is peaceful and tolerant."

The 32-year-old says she feels almost guilty when she sees women wearing headscarves or veils being pulled aside at airports by security guards for extra questioning while she &

dressed in Western clothes, her head uncovered &

is left alone.

"I'm one of them," said Sayekti, who went to "Verses of Love" expecting it to be self-righteous and preachy, but left the theater hugely impressed and moved.

The movie based on Habiburrahman El Shirazy's 2003 novel by the same title, also a best-seller in Indonesia, is well-positioned to overtake "Titanic" as the nation's biggest-ever box-office hit. That film sold more than — million tickets during its three-month run in 1997.

In recent years, domestic cinema has been largely dominated by cheaply produced horror movies, which along with teen flicks have been known to draw respectable crowds.

Though the beautifully filmed "Verses of Love," shot on the main island of Java and in India, is striking a chord with Muslims, it is making some members of the Christian minority uncomfortable because they see it as proselytizing.

Egyptian-born Maria converts to Islam after falling in love with the hero and there are several foreboding images of blood dropping on a black cross tattooed on her wrist.

Some are refusing to go, but others say, ultimately, it's a love story with universal appeal.

"What happens in the movie could happen to anyone," said Eliana Sampelalong, a 31-year-old Christian banker, who had to fight for a ticket in the South Sulawesi city of Makassar, where almost all shows were sold out. "A woman is willing to give up anything for love, even, sometimes her faith."