Crime & Justice

Anaheim Coptic Christian church celebrates 15 years amid anti-Muslim movie protests

St. Mary and St. Verena Coptic Orthodox Church in Anaheim give church tours to neighbors and visitors during their weekend festival.
St. Mary and St. Verena Coptic Orthodox Church in Anaheim give church tours to neighbors and visitors during their weekend festival.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

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News media vans are still camped outside the Cerritos home of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the man believed to be the filmmaker of the anti-Muslim amateur movie that's sparked violent protests at U.S. diplomatic facilities throughout the Middle East since Thursday.

Nakoula, a Coptic Christian, was escorted by L.A. County Sheriff's deputies just after midnight Saturday for voluntary questioning by federal probation officers. He was not arrested or detained. News photographers Saturday afternoon said they hadn’t seen anyone return or leave the house.

A few miles to the east, worshipers at St. Mary and St. Verena Coptic Orthodox Church in Anaheim tried to celebrate the church’s 15 year anniversary festival, despite questions and whispers about who Coptics are, what they believe, and the movie trailer that’s ignited the Middle East.

An Anaheim Police police patrol car was parked outside the church grounds. At the festival, Nicole Ibrahim, a parishioner at St. Mary and St. Verena’s, took down names for guided tours of the church. She said people who know she’s Coptic Christian naturally ask about the movie trailer.

“People ask us, you know, ‘You’re Coptic. You’re related to that video,’ but we would never…we respect all religions whether they’re Muslim or Jewish,” she said. “We respect every religion just like we would want them to respect ours.”

Christian Copts are a sizable religious minority in Egypt, with roots that date back to the early days of Christianity. Today, Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 85 million.

The Copts' long history of persecution has made many fearful of the political changes in Egypt in the last year last year.

This weekend, local authorities have stepped up patrols at and around places of worship, including mosques, synagogues and Coptic Christian churches. Anaheim police called Fr. Joseph Boules of St. Mary and St. Verena’s before the weekend to advise his church members to watch for any suspicious activity or persons at their festival. Boules said he's not noticed anything unusual.

“I hope this will give pause to both sides -- the people who do this kind of controversial work – to stop and think about it. A lot of innocent people can get hurt,” said Fr. Boules.

Fr. Boules said he has not been able to talk to his parish about the uproar over the "Innocence of Muslims" movie. He said the few worshipers he's spoken with at weekday church services were saddened by the violence sparked by the movie trailer, and concerned because a Copt is linked to the film.

“Even if I disagree with you, if I call myself a Christian, I have to abide by the Christian principals,” Boules said. “I can’t abandon them and start resorting to returning hate for hate, and violence for violence. Then I’ve lost my identity.”

On Friday, about 60 Southern California Muslims held a vigil to mourn those killed at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, reports the Los Angeles Times.

This weekend, St. Mary and St. Verena celebrates the feast of one of its patron saints. St. Verena, a nurse, was born and raised in Egypt around the fourth or fifth century. The church will honor her with a special Sunday service which will include a visit from Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California and Hawaii. He is expected to lead prayers during during Sunday morning services.