By Harriet Ryan and Jessica Garrison, Los Angeles Times –
LOS ANGELES—One ran a low-profile Christian charity from a sleepy suburb east of Los Angeles. The other was a financially strapped gas station operator just out of federal prison.
In the last year, these men, Egyptian immigrants, became unlikely collaborators in an endeavor that has shaken the stability of the Middle East.
Joseph Nassralla Abdelmasih, the president of the Duarte-based charity Media for Christ, and Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a convicted felon from Cerritos, emerged Thursday as forces behind “Innocence of Muslims.” An online trailer for the low-budget film incited violence in recent days across the Arab world.
Media for Christ, whose stated mission is to “glow Jesus’ light” to the world, obtained permits to shoot the movie in August 2011, and Nakoula provided his home as a set and paid the actors, according to government officials and those involved in the production.
In a sign of the tensions the movie has sparked, Los Angeles County officials said the U.S. State Department had asked them not to release copies of the film permits containing information about who organized the shoot. Obama administration officials also flagged the trailer to YouTube and asked the company to review whether it violated the website’s terms of service.
Both men appeared to have gone into hiding Thursday. As the furor over the film grew, they and their associates have distanced themselves from the production. Nakoula told the Associated Press he was a logistics manager on the movie, not the director. He told a Coptic bishop Thursday that he had no role in it, the clergyman told the Los Angeles Times.
“He denied completely any involvement,” said Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles.
An official at Media for Christ said Wednesday the charity was not connected to the movie and was upset by its controversial content. The same day, an associate who served as a script consultant told the paper that Nassralla “had nothing to do with it.”
But Duarte’s deputy city manager said she had been told by sheriff’s officials that the permits to shoot the movie had been issued to Media for Christ. An actor who appeared in the movie, Tim Dax, said he was paid $75 a day in checks drawn on the bank account of Abanob Basseley Nakoula — a name linked to the Cerritos property where Nakoula Basseley Nakoula resides. The home’s distinctive front door with triangle windows in a half-circle pattern is visible in the 14-minute trailer for the movie posted on YouTube.
Neither the charity nor the men have been a focus of anti-hate groups or law enforcement officials who monitor extremists. Their status as relative unknowns contrasts with that of Steve Klein, an anti-Islamic activist who had publicly acknowledged serving as a script consultant on the movie. Klein’s views have been tracked by Muslim groups and others for years. One of his platforms was a weekly show on Media for Christ’s satellite network, The Way TV.
That network, which broadcasts mainly prayers, sermons and hymns to Arabic Christian viewers in the U.S., Canada and the Middle East, was the chief project of Media for Christ before the movie.
Nassralla founded the charity in 2005 with $30,000 of his own money. In its 2011 tax filing, which covers the period of the filming, the charity reported having eight employees and contributions of $1 million.
“Due to the large number of donors, it (is) virtually impossible to provide names of donors,” that filing states.
While Media for Christ public filings describe it as an evangelical organization working to spread the Gospel, Nassralla has devoted himself in recent years to criticizing Islam in speeches and interviews. With Klein, Nassralla joined in accusations that Sheriff Lee Baca was embracing the Muslim Brotherhood by allying with a prominent Muslim American civil rights group.
“I fled to America with my family because of the violence directed against me for my Christian faith,” Nassralla was quoted as saying last year on an anti-Islamic website. “Sheriff Baca must be fired, and the County must apologize to all of us who have suffered at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
In a 2010 speech in New York, Nassralla criticized violence against Christians in Egypt and deplored plans to build a mosque near the former World Trade Center site in New York.”Wake up, America…. Stop Islamicization of America,” he said.
How he came to know Nakoula is not clear. Nakoula attended a number of Coptic churches in the L.A. area, including St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Bellflower.
“He is not a regular member — he comes and leaves,” said Serapion, who said he had gathered information about Nakoula from priests in the diocese since the Mideast unrest began. “Sometimes he disappears for many months. We don’t know about his activities.”
Some of those activities were criminal. He was convicted on state drug charges in 1997. In 2010, he was convicted in an identity theft scheme. According to the court file, Nakoula, who ran gas stations in Hawaiian Gardens, operated under a dizzying array of aliases, including Kritbag Difrat. He was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and was released last summer.
The Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church issued a statement this week condemning the funding and production of the film.
Coptic Christianity traces its roots to Egypt, where it was said to have been founded by one of Christ’s apostles. Its followers constitute the largest religious minority in Egypt.