When she was five years old, Suzie Abdou moved from Egypt to California. As part of the area’s Coptic Christian diaspora, Abdou says she can’t remember when Copts here were a catalyst for violence in the Middle East.
“This is really the first time where we find ourselves in the center because the perpetrator lives right here in Cerritos," says Abdou. "So now, this is our neighbor. And of course, it has sent shockwaves, because the film is just so offensive.”
Through her work at a local nonprofit, Abdou has been involved in film festivals — but she says she’s never heard of Nakoula Bassely Nakoula, the Egyptian Copt who’s allegedly the director of the “Innocence of Muslims” movie. The only reason Abdou’s aware of his connection to Cerritos is because she read it in an Associated Press wire story.
The blogosphere has buzzed with comparisons between Nakoula’s low-budget movie about the prophet Muhammad and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film that offended many Christians. Abdou says that’s not fair.
“’The Last Temptation of Christ’ was not taken well by the Christian community and it was offensive, but in the end, it’s freedom of speech," explains Abdou. "There needs to be a line where some things that are made may be hateful, but they don’t justify, ever, violence.”
Copts in Egypt – one of the oldest branches of Orthodox Christianity - make up the largest Christian sect in the Middle East. But they’re still a religious minority that’s faced discrimination over many years. During the 1980s most of the Copts who live in LA County today fled Egypt.
Two years ago, hundreds of Copts gathered in front of a Los Angeles Federal building to protest violence that had erupted in Egypt between Muslims and Christians during the Christmas holiday.
Father Joseph Boules, a priest at St. Mary and St. Verena Coptic Church in Anaheim, says that despite threats and violence against the faithful, the church has never accepted the kind of anti-Muslim rhetoric in Nakoula Bassely Nakoula’s film.
“The Copts have rarely received justice after many of the attacks that they faced," explains Boules. "But never in the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church, do we encourage violence, or insensitivity to the faith and the belief system of others—it’s just against Christianity.”
The pastor of a Coptic congregation, St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Bellflower, says Nakoula did attend occasional services there until three years ago. Since then, says Father Mauritius Mikhail, he seems to have disappeared. Since Nakoula’s name surfaced in connection with the incendiary film, that parish and church hierarchy in this region have distanced themselves from the man and the movie. The Coptic Orthodox Church Diocese of Los Angeles has issued a statement condemning the film.