OTTAWA - The federal government has some advice for two Canadians who fear for their lives after being wrongly linked to an anti-Muslim film that has sparked violent protests around the globe: button up.
That response has infuriated Nader Fawzy, one of two Canadian Coptic Christians against whom Egypt has issued arrest warrants for alleged involvement in the production, distribution or promotion of the film, Innocence of Muslims.
Fawzy says he believes the arrest warrants are aimed at silencing activists who've criticized the persecution of Copts in Egypt.
And now, he said, the Canadian government is compounding the injustice by suggesting they keep quiet.
"Why I should be quiet?" Fawzy demanded in an interview, noting that freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"Is the Canadian government, because they are scared from those people, they are going to change the way how you live in Canada? I'm so sorry, I'm Canadian citizen and when I came to Canada, I came to live in free country."
Egypt's prosecutor general has issued arrest warrants for a number of Coptic Christians, primarily living in the United States, for alleged involvement with the controversial film.
Fawzy and fellow Canadian Jacques Attalla were among those named in the warrants, accused of offending Islam, insulting the Prophet Muhammad, inciting sectarian strife and jeopardizing Egypt's peace and independence.
Both men deny having anything to do with the amateurish movie. But they fear that being named in the warrants has made them targets for Muslim extremists, who've been encouraged by senior clerics to kill all those connected to the film.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's office had little to say Friday about the plight of the two Canadians.
"I'm not sure it does anyone any good to discuss these issues publicly," Baird spokesman Rick Roth said in an email.
"We'll certainly be working on this issue privately with the Egyptians."
A government official later clarified that Baird is in no way asking the pair to stop speaking out for what they believe but simply commenting on the approach most likely to get results.
"Quiet diplomacy is often the most effective in these situations," the official said. "This is something we will raise with the Egyptians but ... ramping up rhetoric is often not helpful and counterproductive."
The RCMP, which is mandated to investigate threats to national security, also had little comment, beyond suggesting that local police are responsible for investigating any potential threats to individual Canadians.
Attalla could not be reached for comment Friday.
But Fawzy, who has not been contacted by anyone in the federal government so far, said the response from Baird's office is "completely wrong."
"Those extreme Muslims or whoever, I don't care, they are not going to ruin my life. And if the Canadian government supports them by telling me keep quiet, it's the same message what they want. They put my name on the (arrest) list to let me keep quiet," he said.
Fawzy said he can't let death threats by extremists intimidate him into silence about the treatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt or about the arrest warrant against him.
"I have to say it and say it loud. If they start with (silencing) me today, they will continue with everyone in western world. Maybe you tomorrow, maybe after tomorrow someone else."
Fawzy is scheduled to attend a news conference Saturday with his Toronto MP, Liberal Jim Karygiannis. Karygiannis accused the government Friday of "letting Canadians down" and doing nothing to protect Fawzy and Attalla.
"Why does Baird want to muzzle Canadians who fear for their lives?"
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said the government has an obligation to speak out "clearly and strongly" about the erroneous arrest warrants against Fawzy and Attalla.
"No one wants to fan the flames any further. But we have to establish the fact that two people have been implicated in this," Dewar said.
"Certainly, the government's role is to protect the safety of its citizens so it should have reached out as well as speak out and affirm the fact that they had nothing to do with this."
Dewar said Canada should follow the lead of the United States, which has condemned the content of the film but vigorously defended freedom of speech.
The plight of Fawzy and Attalla should have been tailor-made for Baird, who is in the process of creating an office of religious freedom within the Foreign Affairs Department.
In a speech in Washington in May, Baird heralded the fledgling office and said his government "will stand for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is popular, convenient or expedient."
The minister specifically made reference to the persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt.
Baird also quoted from former Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker, telling the audience: "I am Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong ...."
The government continues to deliberate over exactly how the new office of religious freedom will operate, and told the Washington audience announcements would be coming "in due course."