Nativity advert banned
A screenshot from the Nativity advert shows a happy young couple looking at their babyChristmas Starts with Christ

An advert featuring a Nativity scene with Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus has been banned by cinema chiefs for being too "religious". The advert shows a young mother and father huddled over their baby in a basket as a reverse time-lapse is used to strip away the material belongings and transport the viewer back in time to a stable in Bethlehem. No words are spoken in the video and it ends with the message: "Christmas starts with the power of love".

The 45-second clip was funded and produced by a group of Christian charities and churches as part of the Christmas Starts with Christ Campaign. They had tried to book space from Digital Cinema Media (DCM), which manages adverts for leading theatres, Odeon, Vue and Cineworld, only to fall foul of the body's ban on screening commercials deemed "political or religious".

"We have unanimously decided at our weekly committee meeting not to approve the advertisement," the campaign group was told by DCM. The short video has been viewed more than 215,000 times on YouTube.

The Church of England has criticised the decision and compared it to the innkeepers who turned away Mary and Joseph. "Many families will be looking forward to going to the cinema during the Christmas holidays," said the Reverend Arun Arora, the Church of England's Director of Communications. "It is astonishing that Digital Cinema Media refuses to show a short film focused on the holy family.

"This is not so much no room at the inn but a refusal by the innkeepers to take in any family who are religious," he added. In a statement, DCM said it had a "long-standing policy" of refusing "political or religious advertising". Last month, controversy erupted when the organisation halted plans to screen an advert in which a group of people recited the Lord's Prayer.

The chair of ChurchAds.net, which commissioned the advert, called the decision disappointing. "We think we live in a liberal democracy where people can say what they like and then we find that we can't. This advert is very mild stuff – it beggars belief that anyone would want to ban it," said Francis Goodwin. "Our aim is to gently remind people of why and what we celebrate at Christmas; and to do so in a contemporary and creative way.

"There is nothing offensive or intimidating about the ad, which has BBFC [British Board of Film Classification] and CAA [Cinema Advertising Association] approval. We were hoping to run it in cinemas the week before Christmas," he added. "We would ask people to view the film if they have not seen it and to pray that we may yet be able to take it onto the big screen."

In a statement, DCM said: "Digital Cinema Media was approached by Premier Christian Radio on December 16 to screen a 'Christmas Starts with Christ' advertisement.

"As per our policy procedure, the advertisement was referred to the DCM Advertising Policy Committee.

"The committee met at its regular weekly meeting today [22 December] and has declined the advertisement on the grounds that it constitutes religious advertising."