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Fiery O.C. cleric influenced figures behind anti-Islamic film

Three of the men involved in creating 'Innocence of Muslims' are devotees of Zakaria Botros Henein, sometimes called Islam's Public Enemy No. 1.

September 16, 2012|By Jessica Garrison, Ken Bensinger and Harriet Ryan, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies take Nakoula Basseley Nakoula into custody for questioning about a possible probation violation. He was released hours later.
Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies take Nakoula Basseley Nakoula… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

The Southern California men behind the anti-Islamic movie that has enraged the Arab world were influenced by a fiery Coptic cleric who owns a home in Huntington Beach and is known around the globe for insults to the prophet Muhammad that are strikingly similar to those in the film.

The preacher, Zakaria Botros Henein, sometimes called Islam's Public Enemy No. 1, teaches that Muhammad was a necrophile, a homosexual and a pedophile.

He has not been linked to "Innocence of Muslims," but the three disparate figures who have emerged as key forces behind the movie are all devotees of his views.

PHOTOS: Protests over anti-Islam film spread

Steve Klein, a militant Christian who worked on the script, has hailed Botros as "a close friend" and compared him favorably to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Joseph Nassralla, the head of a Christian charity in Duarte where part of the movie was shot, directs visitors from his website to FatherZakaria.net, Botros' site.

And Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who paid the actors and organized the production, spoke openly of his devotion to the cleric while in federal prison the year before the August 2011 shoot.

Timeline: 'Innocence of Muslims' unrest

Botros, 77, could not be reached for comment. His son, Benyamin, said his father was traveling and unavailable.

"I cannot tell you where he is because his life is in danger," the son said. He added that he did not think his father had any involvement in the film.

The elder Botros, a bearded man who wears a large cross and a black robe, defended the movie in his broadcast Friday on the Arabic satellite TV station Alfady and criticized the violent reaction to the film.

He dissected more than a dozen scenes from the movie trailer, reading from the Koran and other Islamic teachings to back up allegations in the film critical of Muhammad and Islam.

"The movie is all things we said in the past," he said.

For decades, the priest has been among the most galvanizing and high-profile figures in the Muslim world. Jailed several times in his native Egypt for trying to convert Muslims to Christianity, he was exiled by Hosni Mubarak's government in the early 1990s in exchange for an early release. He fled to Australia and ran a parish there for more than a decade, before departing in the midst of a dispute with the Coptic pope over his authoritarian style.

In Australia, he began an online ministry that moved to cable television. Reaching a worldwide audience that grew into the millions, he preached that Islam was a misguided religion and that the prophet Muhammad was a morally challenged man who partook in homosexual acts and was a necrophile.

That work earned him the ire of the governments of Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia; Al Qaeda allegedly declared a fatwa calling for his death and offering $60 million to his killer.

Early in the last decade, he relocated to Orange County, where he bought real estate. He kept his whereabouts quiet, but his ministry continued. Hundreds of episodes of his 90-minute show were transmitted on the Coptic satellite station Al-Hayat before the show was canceled in 2010. A year later, he launched his own network, Westminster-based Alfady, which carries his programs.

Botros' views are in sharp contrast to those of mainstream Coptic leaders, who have condemned 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.

Riots sparked by the film's trailer, which was translated into Arabic and posted on YouTube earlier this month, have spread from Egypt and Libya to Sudan, Indonesia and elsewhere. Four Americans were killed in Benghazi, Libya, in attacks that coincided with protests.

The day after the first riots, a man called several news organizations and claimed that he was an Israeli American developer who had produced the movie for $5 million with the backing of 100 Jewish donors, but that story was quickly proved false.

Klein is an evangelical Christian activist with a long history of anti-Islamic campaigns. In his 2010 book "Is Islam Compatible With the Constitution?" he writes glowingly of Botros and calls him a close friend.

Film permits had been issued to Media for Christ, a nonprofit group run by Nassralla, an Egyptian Christian who has devoted himself in recent years to criticizing Islam.

Nakoula and Nassralla have been in seclusion since the protests began. Early Saturday, Nakoula was picked up from his Cerritos home by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies on behalf of federal probation officials and released hours later. A U.S. courts spokeswoman said officials are reviewing whether Nakoula, who was convicted on bank fraud charges, violated terms of his probation.

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