Haaz Sleiman, an Muslim American actor, will star in the titular role in National Geographic’s Killing Jesus, which has stirred up some controversy.

Muslim Actor Playing Jesus

Sleiman was forced to defend his casting as Jesus at the Television Critics Association press tour Wednesday. One reporter pointed out that some Christian conservatives took issue with the casting of a Muslim man taking on the part.

“In Islam, we believe Jesus is a prophet and respect him and follow his teachings and put him beside the Prophet Muhammad — a lot of people don’t know that,” Sleiman responded. “As a person who was raised Muslim, it’s an honor to play that… Personally, I’ve been heavily shaped by his teachings.”

“I cannot speak for Jesus, but I can quote his teachings and he said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’… How would he react to me playing Jesus? He wouldn’t judge it,” the actor added. “He wouldn’t judge his own enemy … playing this part highlights his teaching in a very nice way.”

Later on during the panel, Sleiman was asked about what ran through his head when he learned that he’d landed the part of Jesus.

“I’m going to sound cheesy right now: The first thing I thought was ‘love.’ I really just felt love in the moment,” he said. “That was the first thing I felt — and then I called my mother, who said, ‘…bless you for playing Jesus, peace be upon him.’ I thought that was lovely.”

NatGeo’s Killing Jesus is adapted from Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly‘s bestseller of the same name and will air as a three-hour film special on the network. Frasier’s Kelsey Grammer will play King Herod in the made-for-TV movie, while True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer will play Pontius Pilate.

Sleiman has previously acted in Nurse Jackie and Covert Affairs.