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Anti-Muslim Film, 'Innocence Of Muslims', Sparks Concerns For Relationships Among Muslims, Copts, Jews

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ANTIMUSLIM FILM
Lebanese protesters burn the American and Israeli flags during a protest about "Innocence of Muslims," a film ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad, in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. | AP

Most acts of religiously motivated violence pit one faith against the other, but the uproar across the Middle East over clips of an anti-Islam film that was produced in the U.S. has managed to draw several faiths into the fray, presenting a unique set of circumstances.

Reports have linked people from three major religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity with the film, and members of each say they fear repercussions against their own people and their relationships to other religions groups.

There have been more than a dozen deaths of Americans and Middle Eastern nationals during protests; the most high-profile victim was U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, though U.S. officials have said the attack on the Benghazi consulate where he and other Americans were killed may have been planned. Protesters in front of Yemen's U.S. Embassy died in clashes with police Thursday, while in Cairo demonstrators jumped over the wall of the U.S. embassy to tear down the American flag.

On Wednesday, media reports said the anti-Islam film, "Innocence of Muslims" was produced by an Israeli Jew with the financing of Jewish backers. Then other reports hinted that it was made by evangelicals and, as of Thursday, a Coptic Christian in California. At the same time, Muslims who took to the streets in protest have been blamed for fighting an extremist video with extremist actions.

In addition to Muslim anger over the film's unsavory depictions of the Islamic prophet -- any visual representations of the prophet are prohibited in the faith -- part of the growing tension stems from the lack of definitive knowledge and changing reports about the religious motivations behind the film, if any.

"It's a new dimension of the an age-old problem: blaming others and stereotyping," said Abe Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, who said he was concerned about initial reports that named a Jewish man named Sam Bacile -- now reported to be a fake name -- as a California-based, Israeli real estate developer who spent $5 million making the amateur-quality film.

"I guarantee you that somebody doing research on this moment in history five years from now, 10 years from now, is going to report almost innocently that an Israeli-American Jew decided to do a hate film on Muslims supported by the Jewish community that triggered riots across the world," he said.

Foxman called the film, which depicts the Islamic prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, a child molester and a gay man, "juvenile, simplistic and ugly," and said its maker "knew it would push buttons, knew there were consequences."

With echos of protests over the infamous Danish newspaper cartoons in 2005 and marches in Islamic nations against a Florida pastor's proposed Quran burning in 2010, Muslims have demonstrated outside U.S. offices in a growing number of countries, including Iran, Iraq and Tunisia, since Tuesday.

“It illustrates how hot the fuel is that one spark ignites it so suddenly," said Michael Wood, a spokesman for Open Doors USA, a group that assists persecuted Christians worldwide. "Many of the protesters link the U.S. with Christianity. So that puts believers in these hot spots such as Libya and Egypt directly in the line of fire."

On Wednesday, the Associated Press identified Californian Nakoula Basseley Nakoula as the man behind the film, citing an anonymous U.S. law enforcement official as its source.

Nakoula, who identifies himself as a Coptic Christian, said in earlier interviews that he managed the company that made the film. The film's director supported concerns about the treatment of the Copts by Muslims, said Nakoula, who also denied posing as Bacile. But the AP reported that telephone numbers for Bacile and Nakoula trace to the same address.

Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles said Nakoula called his alleged connections to the film "a political thing," in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Nakoula called him and "denied completely any involvement" in the film, said Serapion.

Another U.S.-based Copt, Morris Sadek, has taken credit for putting the film online and translating it to Arabic for Middle Eastern viewers. He said he supported it because it included a scene on Christian persecution.

"Holistically blaming the Copts for the production of this movie is equivalent to holistically blaming Muslims for the actions of a few fanatics," added Serapion in an AP interview. "Even though Christians often face persecution, injustice and calls for open attacks over the airwaves, we reject violence in all its forms."

The discussion over the role of Copts in the film led leaders of the Egypt-based church to call a rare meeting to condemn the video. Church leaders said the film was released as "part of a malicious campaign targeting defamation of religions aiming to divide the people, most notably the Egyptian people," according to a statement from the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Open Doors USA estimates that around 100,000 Copts left Egypt in the last year after the attacks on Coptic churches during the Arab Spring. Many came to the U.S., where large communities exist in Southern California, Houston, Detroit, New Jersey and Florida. The church, which is based in Alexandria, Egypt, has 7.5 million members in the nation, or about 9 percent of its population of 84 million.

The majority of other Egyptians are Muslim, though only a minority of them and Muslims in other countries have been protesting, points out Naeem Baig, vice president of public affairs for the Islamic Circle of North America.

"The normal and average reaction to such a video or (Danish) cartoons or any mockery of Islam -- and especially the Prophet Muhammad -- is being abhorred, but people ignore it in most cases," said Baig. "The images of people protesting and being violent, the percent of those people is not even zero when you think about the 1.5 or 1.6 billion Muslims in the world."

Clarification: A previous version of this article used language that implied Bishop Serapion called Nakoula's alleged connections to the film "a political thing." In fact, Nakoula himself made the comment. The article has also been updated to clarify who made the film.

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