Cinema chains in El Salvador have ignored a government order forbidding them to screen supernatural thriller Stigmata, arguing that the ban violated their freedom of expression.

The Salvadoran Public Entertainment Directorate had previously approved the film for audiences over 18, but decided to ban its exhibition after it became a local box office hit. The MGM release has grossed about $40,000 in five days - a strong performance for a film in the small Central American nation.

The film features Patricia Arquette as a beautician mysteriously stricken with stigmata - bleeding wounds on parts of the body where Jesus was pierced on the cross.

"The Salvadoran people, who are strongly Catholic, have sent telegrams and made phone calls requesting the movie be withdrawn to rescue our values," said Edgardo Orellana, who evaluates films for the entertainment directorate.

However, local distributor Miguel Pinto said: "It strikes me as ridiculous. Withdrawing the movie would violate our freedom of expression.

Stigmata has grossed $50m in the US where it was released last September.