The Nation of Islam (searchis rallying to support Michael Jackson (searchand has begun handling some security for the pop star as he prepares to defend himself on child molestation charges, sources told The Associated Press.

When defense lawyer Mark Geragos (searchheld a news conference on Jackson's behalf after charges were announced on Dec. 18, one of those standing behind him was Leonard F. Muhammad (search), identified on the Nation of Islam's Web site as its chief of staff. The group also handled security for a Dec. 20 party at Jackson's Neverland estate, sources close to the Jackson camp said.

The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Chicago-based group's involvement may extend into Jackson's financial affairs. But the group, after receiving inquiries from the AP and other news organizations, issued a statement Monday strongly denying that it has taken over some of Jackson's business affairs or that it is taking a central role in his defense strategy.

"The Nation of Islam, in response to several inquiries, has said today that it has no official business or professional relationship with Mr. Michael Jackson," said a statement issued by The Final Call, the group's newspaper. "The Nation of Islam joins thousands of other people in wishing him well."

Geragos also denied any central role for the group in aiding Jackson.

"They are not part of his defense," he said. "I'm certainly not pushing away support from anyone, but I don't ask people what their religious affiliation is when they offer support.

"A lot of people have reached out to Michael. Jesse Jackson has called, and I've spoken to him. Tons of people are supportive."

Geragos also downplayed Muhammad's presence at the Dec. 18 news conference: "He's one of Michael's supporters."

Sources who have been close to the Jackson camp and who are familiar with the entertainer's financial affairs said Nation of Islam members handled security during the Dec. 20 Neverland party.

The sources also said the group began taking over some of Jackson's business affairs, and Muhammad and other Nation of Islam members had been working out of Geragos' office. Geragos denied that claim.

As the Nation of Islam inserted itself, many of Jackson's regular advisers were unable to gain access to the singer, the sources said.

In a separate development Monday, longtime Jackson spokesman Stuart Backerman said he resigned because of what he called "strategic differences." He refused to comment on the reports that the Nation of Islam had become involved with the Jackson camp.

Geragos said Backerman was fired five days ago because he spoke to the news media during the Jackson family get-together Dec. 20 at Neverland, the entertainer's estate near Santa Barbara.

The event was designed to show support for the embattled singer after he was charged with seven counts of performing lewd or lascivious acts on a child under 14 and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent, reportedly wine.

"He was terminated by me personally for talking when I told him not to," Geragos said.

Backerman responded: "That's untrue. I was the spokesman up until I just resigned. I was not fired."

Backerman, who has been Jackson's spokesman for a year and was a consultant for six months before that, acknowledged that Geragos asked him after the party to not speak to the media again until they had further discussions.

Attorney Brian Oxman, who is a close friend of the Jackson family and has represented some of them in litigation, said his attorney-client relationship with the family restricted what he could say.

"I'm aware of the claims about the Nation of Islam and the factors behind them," he said. "As to what the details are, I have no information. I've heard of the claims, but I do not know their validity."

Two of Jackson's advisers, Charles Koppelman and Alan Whitman, said they remain in charge of his music and finances.

Asked about the Nation of Islam's reported role in directing Jackson's affairs, Koppelman said, "It's not the case as to his music, finances and assets. I think it's primarily in security."

Koppelman, a former chief of EMI Records, said he negotiated with CBS for the broadcast of a Jackson television special, which is set to air Friday. He said he has not talked to Jackson about the Nation of Islam.

"If he gets involved on a spiritual basis, that's his business," he said.

Whitman, an accountant, said he continues to be Jackson's financial manager.

"I receive his bills and write his checks. ... Anything else I relate to Mr. Jackson is confidential," he said.

Jackson's brother, Jermaine, has converted to Islam but is not a member of the Nation of Islam. He was asked during an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live" whether his brother planned to convert and answered no.

Geragos also ridiculed the Nation of Islam reports on the same show.