Charity head says 'Innocence of Muslims' filmmaker misled him

The head of a Christian charity that provided its Duarte headquarters as a set for "Innocence of Muslims" said Monday that he was duped into participating in the low-budget anti-Islam film that has generated anti-American protests across the Arab world.

Joseph Nassralla, president of Media for Christ, made the assertion in a statement posted on the website of anti-Muslim blogger and activist Pamela Geller.

Nassralla wrote that a fellow Egyptian immigrant named Nakoula B. Nakoula had approached him last year for help making a movie about Christian persecution and said "it would examine the culture of the desert and how it is related to what is going on right now."

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Nassralla said he offered the charity's broadcast studio for 10 days of filming but had nothing further to do with movie, which depicted the prophet Muhammad as a buffoon and sexual deviant.

"The final product ... bore no resemblance to the film I thought he was making," Nassralla wrote. "Nakoula altered the film without anyone's knowledge, changing its entire focus and dubbing in new dialogue."

Nassralla, who said he was in hiding after receiving death threats, was drawn into the firestorm over the film because his charity's name was listed on permits for the movie. In his statement, Nassralla said he was unaware that Nakoula had listed his organization on the government documents.

His charity runs a satellite television network, The Way TV, which airs sermons and hymns alongside anti-Islamic rhetoric. The host of one such program is Steve Klein, a militant evangelical Christian from Riverside County who worked as a script consultant for "Innocence of Muslims."

Even as Nassralla distanced himself from the movie, he wrote that blame for the worldwide violence triggered by the film's trailer that was posted on YouTube lay not with the filmmakers but "those who are rioting and murdering."

His account of the movie's origins heightened the focus on Nakoula, a convicted felon and acolyte of Zakaria Botros Henein, an Orange County-based televangelist known for scorning the prophet Muhammad.

Nakoula, the operator of service stations in Hawaiian Gardens, spent most of the year before the film shoot in federal custody on bank fraud charges. A fellow inmate told The Times that Nakoula obsessively read the Koran for ammunition against Islam and said he had been "enlightened" by Botros, a Coptic priest disavowed by the mainstream church.

Two months after his release, Nakoula arranged the film shoot, telling the cast and crew his name was Sam Bacile. He used that name last week in media interviews in which he identified himself as an Israeli American director backed by 100 Jewish donors. He subsequently acknowledged he was a Christian, but told the Associated Press he was a logistics manager for Bacile. The Times found no evidence of a Bacile with any involvement in the film.

Later Nakoula called Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles to deny any involvement with the film. He and his family left their Cerritos home last weekend and are in hiding. Attempts to reach Nakoula, Nassralla and Botros were unsuccessful.

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Coptic and Muslims leaders held a joint news conference on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall on Monday to condemn the movie and the violent reaction to it. Bishop Serapion said a few "fanatical individuals" should not define the Coptic community, and Maher Hathout of the Muslim Public Affairs Council called on Muslims to ignore hateful portrayals of their religion.

"Those are neither Muslims nor Copts," he said of the filmmakers and the protesters. "Those are people who are psychologically diseased."

Times staff writers Ken Bensinger and Harriet Ryan contributed to this report.

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