LOS ANGELES — One ran a low-profile Christian charity from a suburb east of Los Angeles. The other was a financially strapped gas station operator just out of federal prison.
In the last year, these men, Egyptian immigrants, became unlikely collaborators in an endeavor that has shaken the stability of the Middle East.
Joseph Nassralla Abdelmasih, president of the Media for Christ charity, and Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a felon, emerged Thursday as forces behind Innocence of Muslims. An online trailer for the low-budget film incited violence in recent days across the Arab world.
Media for Christ, based in Duarte, Calif., 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. Obama administration officials also flagged the trailer to YouTube and asked the company to review whether it violated the website's terms of service.
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.
An official at Media for Christ said Wednesday the charity was not connected to the movie and was upset by its controversial content. The same day, an associate who served as a script consultant told the paper that Nassralla "had nothing to do with it."
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 property where Nakoula Basseley Nakoula resides in Cerittos, Calif.
Neither the charity nor the men have been a focus of anti-hate groups or law enforcement officials who monitor extremists. Their 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 mainly prayers, sermons and hymns to Arabic Christian viewers in the United States, Canada and the Middle East, was the chief project of Media for Christ before the movie.
Nassralla founded the charity in 2005 with $30,000 of his own money. While Media for Christ 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.
Google blocks video
Google, the owner of YouTube, has blocked access to the anti-Muslim video in Egypt and Libya, but did not remove the video from its website.
Under YouTube's terms of service, hate speech is speech against individuals, not against groups. Because the video mocks Islam but not Muslim people, it has been allowed to stay on the site in most of the world, the company said Thursday.
"This video — which is widely available on the Web — is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube," it said. "However, given the very difficult situation in Libya and Egypt we have temporarily restricted access in both countries."