"Innocence of Muslims," a project launched by two Egyptian immigrants, was filmed at a suburban L.A. home.
LOS ANGELES - One ran a low-profile Christian charity from a Los Angeles suburb. The other was a financially strapped gas station operator just out of federal prison.
In the past year, these men, Egyptian immigrants, became unlikely collaborators in an endeavor that has shaken the Mideast.
Joseph Nassralla Abdelmasih, the president of the charity Media for Christ, based in Duarte, Calif., and Nakoula Basseley Nakoula of Cerritos, Calif., convicted of felony identity theft, emerged Thursday as forces behind "Innocence of Muslims." An online trailer for the low-budget film incited violence across the Arab world.
Media for Christ, whose stated mission is to "glow Jesus' light" to the world, obtained permits to shoot the movie in August 2011, and Nakoula provided his home as a set and paid the actors, according to government officials and those involved in the production.
In a sign of the tensions the movie has sparked, Los Angeles County officials said the U.S. State Department had asked them not to release copies of the film permits containing information about who organized the shoot.
Both men appeared to have gone into hiding Thursday. As the furor over the film grew, they and their associates have distanced themselves from the production. Nakoula told the Associated Press he was a logistics manager on the movie, not the director. He told a Coptic bishop Thursday that he had no role in it, the clergyman told the Los Angeles Times. "He denied completely any involvement," said Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles.
An official at Media for Christ said Wednesday the charity was not connected to the movie and was upset by its controversial content.
But Duarte's deputy city manager said she had been told by sheriff's officials that the permits to shoot the movie had been issued to Media for Christ. An actor who appeared in the movie, Tim Dax, said he was paid $75 a day in checks drawn on the bank account of Abanob Basseley Nakoula -- a name linked to the Cerritos property where Nakoula Basseley Nakoula lives. The home's distinctive front door with triangle windows in a half-circle pattern is visible in the 14-minute trailer for the movie posted on YouTube.
The men's status as relative unknowns contrasts with that of Steve Klein, an anti-Islamic activist who had publicly acknowledged serving as a script consultant on the movie. Klein's views have been tracked by Muslim groups and others for years. One of his platforms was a weekly show on Media for Christ's satellite network, the Way TV.
That network, which broadcasts religious material in the U.S., Canada and the Mideast, was the chief project of Media for Christ before the movie.
Nassralla founded the charity in 2005 with $30,000 of his own money. In its 2011 tax filing, the charity reported having eight employees.
While Media for Christ's public filings describe it as an evangelical organization working to spread the Gospel, Nassralla has devoted himself in recent years to criticizing Islam in speeches and interviews.
"I fled to America with my family because of the violence directed against me for my Christian faith," Nassralla was quoted as saying last year on an anti-Islamic website.
In a 2010 speech in New York, Nassralla criticized violence against Christians in Egypt and deplored plans to build a mosque near the former World Trade Center site in New York. "Wake up, America. ... Stop Islamicization of America," he said.