Coptic Christians in the spotlight after filmmaker is identified

Published: Monday, Sept. 17 2012 9:34 a.m. MDT

A car sits parked at the suburban Los Angeles home believed to be that of filmmaker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, Friday, Sept. 14, 2012. Federal authorities have identified Nakoula, a self-described Coptic Christian, as the key figure behind "Innocence of Muslims," a film denigrating Islam and the Prophet Muhammad that ignited mob violence against U.S. embassies across the Middle East.

Associated Press

Following reports that some Coptic Christians were behind the film that has fueled violent protests by Muslims in Africa and the Middle East, news outlets have shined a bright light on the obscure Christian sect.

As part of the ongoing stream of breaking news on the third consecutive day of violence, the man behind the film, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, was identified as a Coptic Christian living in Southern California.

Most of the world's Coptic Christians live in Egypt where they have recently been victims of violence by Muslim extremists since the regime changed in that predominantly Muslim nation.

Nakoula told an actor in the film, titled "Innocense of Muslims," that the reason why he made the movie was because "he was tired of radical Muslims killing people," according to CBS. The film was also reportedly backed by other anti-Muslim extremists in the United States.

A trailer of the film that was translated into Arabic and was posted on YouTube became a pretext for protests in Egypt and Libya, where four Americans were killed — although government officials believe the killings were likely a previously planned attack and the protest was used as cover. News reports have identified more than two dozen countries where people are demonstrating against the film that had a single sparsely attended screening in a small theater in California.

And now Coptic Christians are fearing for their safety despite declarations from their leaders in the United States and in Egypt denouncing the film.

According to news reports providing background on the Coptic church, Coptic Christians are part of the Orthodox Christian tradition, one of three main traditions under the Christian umbrella, alongside Catholicism and Protestantism. Copts split from other Christians in the fifth century over the definition of the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Copts trace their history to the Apostle Mark, the New Testament figure who they say introduced Christianity to Egypt in A.D. 43. Egypt holds a special place for Coptic Christians because, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus' family fled there shortly after his birth to escape King Herod, who was calling for the execution of all Jewish boys under the age of 2.

The largest group of Copts in the world is still in Egypt, where they make up between 8 percent and 11 percent of the nation's 80 million citizens, most of whom are Sunni Muslims.

S. Michael Saad, chairman of the Council for Coptic Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., told NPR there are about 400,000 Copts in the U.S., and they have the second-highest number of churches in the country's Orthodox community after the Greeks.

"They started coming in the 1950s after the Nasser revolution, when they were hit by both land reform and socialism," Saad said.

Coptic migration increased after the 1967 war with Israel, he said, and in the 1970s when Anwar Sadat ruled Egypt. The period saw a rise of fundamentalist Islam, culminating in Sadat's assassination in 1981. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, clamped down on Islamists, and Egypt's approximately 8.5 million Copts were relatively safe during the next three decades.

But ever since the ouster of Mubarak in 2011, and the subsequent rise of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood as a political force, there has been a steady increase in Coptic emigration to the U.S. and elsewhere.

"Numbers have greatly increased over the past 18 months since the so-called Arab Spring," Saad said. "We are seeing tens of families in every church every month."

Prompting the exodus was the violence Copts have experienced since Mubarak's overthrow. A Coptic church was bombed in Alexandria in January, killing 21 people. Last fall, during clashes with Egyptian security forces, two dozen Coptic Christians and their supporters were killed.

Some Coptics are standing by Muslims in the ongoing protests, which are also fueled by strong anti-American sentiment in Egypt.

“This won’t stop until the U.S. government apologizes and charges these men (who made the film) with hate crimes, because that is what they are. We are Egyptians and we are all in this together,” a Coptic Christian told Bikyamasr.com as he waved in the next group of protesters heading to throw stones at the police, who return with volleys of tear gas and more rocks in what is becoming a cyclical violent affair.

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