DUBAI (AFP) – An Al-Qaeda group in Iraq has declared Christians “legitimate targets” as a deadline expired for Egypt’s Coptic church to free women allegedly held after converting to Islam, SITE monitors said Wednesday.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) said in an Internet statement its action was justified by the church’s refusal to indicate the status of the women it said were being held captive in monasteries, the US-based monitoring group said.
“All Christian centres, organisations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for the mujahedeen (holy warriors) wherever they can reach them,” said the statement.
The group which claimed the capturing of Christians in a Baghdad church that ended Sunday with the killing of 46 worshippers in a rescue drama, had said that the attack was to seek the release of the alleged converts in Egypt.
“Let these idolaters, and at their forefront, the hallucinating tyrant of the Vatican, know that the killing sword will not be lifted from the necks of their followers until they declare their innocence from what the dog of the Egyptian Church is doing,” the ISI said in its latest statement.
It also demanded that the Christians “show to the mujahedeen their seriousness to pressure this belligerent church to release the captive women from the prisons of their monasteries.”
The women, Camilia Shehata and Wafa Constantine, are the wives of Coptic priests whom Islamists have said were forcibly detained by the Coptic Church after they had willingly converted to Islam.
Shehata disappeared for a few days in July, setting off Coptic protests. Police found her and escorted her back home, triggering protests by Islamists who said the church was detaining her after she converted to Islam.
Footage of a woman claiming to be Shehata after converting to Islam surfaced on the Internet, firing up the protests. The Coptic Church says she was not the woman in the footage.
Wafa Constantine also went missing, in 2004, reportedly after her husband refused to give her a divorce. She was temporarily sequestered at a convent as reports of her conversion were circulated.
The two cases threatened the fragile sectarian balance of the country, where Copts make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80-million population and have been the target of sectarian attacks.