Who are the U.S. Coptic Christians?

The film Innocence of Muslims, which has incited violence in many Muslim countries over its crude characterization of the Prophet Muhammad, resonates with some U.S. Coptic Christians, who have used their adopted nation's free speech protections to speak out against Islam.
A woman stands during a Liturgy in Arabic at the Coptic Orthodox Church of Saint Mary and Saint Antonios in the Queens borough of New York on Wednesday. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The anti-Islamic movie trailer inflaming the Middle East opens with Muslims ransacking a Christian medical clinic and then segues into a flashback of the Prophet Muhammad's life. "Set the place on fire! We'll burn out these forsaken Christians!" cries one Muslim character.

The opening scene from Innocence of Muslims, although crude, resonates with some Egyptian Christians, who have suffered years of persecution and attacks by Islamic militants and fear more of it with new fundamentalist leaders in power in Egypt.

The 14-minute trailer on YouTube enraged Muslims worldwide. Most Egyptian Christians in the U.S. have rejected the movie and say the man and the non-profit tied to the film are fringe players who are not well-known in the Coptic Orthodox Church, the church for the vast majority of Coptic Christians in America.

Speaking out

A tiny minority of U.S. Copts, however, have used their adopted nation's free speech protections to speak out against Islam in a way that would not be tolerated in their native Egypt. The few who engage in this anti-Muslim, evangelical activism — including those behind the movie trailer — are fueled by that history, said Eliot Dickinson, an associate professor of political science at Western Oregon University who has written a book on U.S. Copts.

Coptic history and beliefs 

The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church split from other Christians in 451 A.D. over a dispute about the nature of Christ. Unlike Roman Catholics, they do not believe in the infallibility of the Pope or in purgatory. They believe in the immaculate conception of Jesus, but not of the Virgin Mary and their priests can marry. 

Copts celebrate Christmas according to the Julian calendar, meaning it falls on Jan. 7. The run-up to the holiday is marked by a 40-day period of fasting when red meat, poultry and dairy products are forbidden. Copts break the fast after a Christmas Eve liturgy that ends near midnight.

Copts consider themselves the original Egyptians. The word "Copt" was the name the ancient Greeks gave to the people they encountered in Egypt.

"Whoever made this film is such an outlier in their community that it's completely unrepresentative," Dickinson said. "But what it does is, it taps into this frustration of always being persecuted back in Egypt and let's not downplay that. To be a Copt in Egypt now is a very, very difficult life because, especially after the Arab Spring, it's open season."

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, is the man federal authorities have said is behind the film, though he has only acknowledged publicly that he was involved in management and logistics. He has a criminal record that includes drug and check fraud convictions and has been in hiding since leaving his suburban Los Angeles home last weekend.

Media for Christ was listed as the production company for the film and its headquarters was where most of the movie was made. Its president is Joseph N. Abdelmasih, an outspoken critic of Muslims who also has gone into hiding. Steve Klein, a California insurance agent who has dedicated his life to warning the world about Muslim extremism, has said he was a consultant and promoter of the film.

Nakoula and Abdelmasih are followers of a U.S. Coptic priest named Zakaria Botros Henein, who has not been linked to the film but owns a home in Orange County and has been called Islam's Public Enemy No. 1 for his teachings disparaging the faith.

A man who answered the phone at a listing for Henein in Huntington Beach hung up on the AP.

Uncertainty in Egypt

The trailer was released against a backdrop of increasing uncertainty for the estimated 8 million Christians who remain in Egypt and now live under an Islamist government run by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, following last year's overthrow of longtime president and U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak. Many Copts who fled their homeland for the U.S. and other Western nations in the late 1960s and 1970s still have relatives in Egypt and are concerned for their safety.

A minaret of a mosque is silhouetted in front of the St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo. Egypt's estimated 8 million Coptic Christians are feeling increasingly cornered amid the rise to power of hardline Islamists. (Bernat Armangue/Associated Press)

The Coptic Orthodox Church is home to the vast majority of the 300,000 Coptic Christians in America. In addition to Los Angeles, the largest concentrations of U.S. Copts are in New Jersey, New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Houston and Cleveland.

Henein left the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles a decade ago and has no connection to it, said Bishop Serapion, the church leader for Southern California and Hawaii. "We don't know about what he is doing, we are not responsible (for him), even we don't even know where he is," Serapion said.

Coptic leaders said they were unaware of Nakoula until the trailer surfaced. Media for Christ, which raised more than $1 million US last year, is known but not embraced by Coptic leaders.

Labelled as 'fanatic'

Magdy Azer, president of the California Coptic Assembly, called the charity a "fanatic" group and said its program called The Way TV is full of anti-Islamist preaching and pleas for donations.

"What was their intent? I don't know," he said of the filmmakers. "For me, they most likely just wanted to grab attention from everybody about the persecution in Egypt."

Instead, the video has put the spotlight on a small U.S. immigrant community that for decades has focused on charity to help their fellow Christians in Egypt instead.

A survey released earlier this year by George Washington University found that 92 per cent of U.S. Copts donated money to Egypt in the last three years at an average amount of $5,000 US per person, said Nermien Riad, founder and executive director of the Virginia-based charity Coptic Orphans.

"The Copts are always wanting to be the salt of the earth and a light to the world. The great majority focuses on good and on doing good," said Riad, whose organization co-sponsored the study. "These are Christian values."

Church distances itself from film

Church leaders were also quick to distance themselves from the movie, saying it doesn't match the sentiments of most Copts.

"We have never reacted or behaved like this for the very simple reason that this is against Christianity," said the Rev. Joseph Boules, a priest at St. Mary and St. Verena Coptic Orthodox Church in Anaheim. "We are not going to abandon our principles and return hate for hate. That's not what orthodoxy is about."

The Christian minority in Egypt has long lived with violence.

Last year, a New Year's day bombing at Saints Church in Alexandria, Egypt, killed 21 worshippers, setting off three days of protests and clashes with security forces and Muslim passers-by. In 2010, six Christians and a Muslim guard were killed in a drive-by shooting in southern Egypt on Coptic Christmas Eve.

Many U.S. Copts now worry that the video will worsen the situation for their fellow Copts in Egypt. Christians there saw an increase in violence after Florida pastor Terry Jones threatened to burn the Qur'an and after the publication of cartoons ridiculing Muhammad, said Boules, the Coptic priest.

"For some reason when something inflammatory or offensive comes out, some people rush to shoot first and aim later," he said.