'Innocence of Muslims' filmmakers influenced by controversial cleric
The Southern California men behind the "Innocence of Muslims" 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 making insults against the prophet Muhammad.
Although the preacher, Zakaria Botros Henein, has not been linked to the anti-Muslim film, his views were strikingly similar to those in the movie. He is often called Islam's "Public Enemy No. 1" and teaches that Muhammad was a necrophiliac, a homosexual and a pedophile.
The three disparate figures who have emerged as key forces behind the movie, however, are all supporters of his views, according to interviews and records.
Steve Klein, a militant Christian who worked on the script, has publicly hailed Botros as "a close friend" and compared him favorably to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Joseph Nassralla, the operator of the Christian charity organization whose offices were used in the film, directs visitors from his website to Botros' website, FatherZakaria.net.
And Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who paid the actors and organized every detail of the producton, spoke openly of his devotion to the cleric while in federal prison the year before the August 2011 filming.
Botros, 77, could not be reached for comment. His son, Benyamin, said his father was travelling and was 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 played a role in the film. For his part, the younger Botros said the movie was “just the truth.”
The priest has for decades been among the most controversial figures to Muslims. Jailed twice in his native Egypt for trying to convert Muslims, 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 eventually 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 engaged in homosexual acts and was a necrophiliac.
Such teachings 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 a reported $60 million to his killer.
Early in the last decade, he relocated to Orange County, where he bought real estate under his legal name. He kept his whereabouts quiet, but his ministry continued. Hundreds of episodes of his 90-minute show were transmitted on the Coptic satellite channel, Al-Hayat, before the show was cancelled in 2010. A year later, he launched his own network, Westminster-based Alfady, where his programs continued.
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.
Protests sparked by the film’s trailer, which was translated into Arabic and posted on YouTube earlier this month, have now spread from Egypt and Libya to Sudan, Indonesia and elsewhere. Four Americans were killed in Benghazi, Libya, in attacks that coincided with the protests.
-- Harriet Ryan, Ken Bensinger, Jessica Garrison and Abby Sewell