Al-Qaeda threats instill fear in Egyptian Christians

Following the siege of a Catholic church in central Baghdad on Sunday, Al-Qaeda off-shoot militants issued a direct warning to Egyptian Christians. Three days later, they posted a statement on an extremist website, threatening all Christian institutions.

In Egyptian Christian communities, the threats have not fallen on deaf ears.

"I don’t feel secure at all after the threats of Al-Qaeda," said Maged Youssef, a Coptic Christian and engineer. "We cannot go on forever living under continuous threat whether from our country's Muslim militants or outside. I am so worried about the Christians’ conditions in Egypt in the future; the current situation is vague and unstable."

The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) gunmen seized more than 100 Iraqi Catholic hostages during mass at the Our Lady of Salvation Church, one of Baghdad's largest. The attack, and subsequent rescue attempt, left nearly 60 civilians and police officers dead and 67 people wounded.

Following the incident, the group issued a statement demanding the release of Al-Qaeda prisoners in both Iraq and Egypt. The militants provided the Egyptian Coptic Church 48 hours to release female Muslim converts detained in monasteries.

The group said if their demands were not met it would target Christians not only in Iraq, but also in Egypt.

Camilia Shehata and Wafa Constantine, the two Egyptian women cited by ISI are priests’ wives who allegedly converted to Islam in order to flee their marriages. The Egyptian Coptic Church denies its members the right to divorce.

Both women briefly disappeared–Constantine in 2004 and Shehata in July–for a few days, causing a stir in a country already vexed by escalating sectarian strife. In the aftermath of Camilia’s disappearance, Copts widely demonstrated against the “forced conversion to Islam,” exacerbating  tensions. Shehata has been put under church protection and is allegedly kept in a monastery. In a September Youtube video, later broadcast by the Egyptian public television, Shehata declared she never converted to Islam.

The 48-hour ultimatum released by ISI expired days ago.

"Why do innocent Christians pay the price for Pope Shenouda’s decisions?" Mariam Hanna, a Christian physician questioned. "It is unjust revenge on Christians whether in Egypt or any other countries."

Head of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda III, on Wednesday said the threats were eventually a “good” thing because they evoked sympathy for the church.

"Affirming that everything turns to good, the message that reached us brought sympathy for us from the Noble Al-Azhar and from many writers and journalists and the interior ministry and police," he was quoted by AFP as saying.

But for Hanna, such threats are poised to further increase tension between Muslims and Christians. "This year has witnessed consecutive sectarian incidents and serious clashes that led to offensive statements against prominent religious figures," she said.

Hanna doubts the government will continue the tightened security around churches. "Then things will return to normal, which makes me feel uncomfortable with going to church these days," she added.

Hany Shokrallah, press manager of All Saints Anglican Cathedral in Zamalek, said high security measures have, in fact, been put into operation in the area.

“The government has doubled the number of armed policemen inside and outside the cathedral and has banned cars from parking in front of the gates,” he said.

Shokrallah, however, pointed out that the number of Christians reluctant to visit the cathedral in light of the threats can't be determined now.

“I guess the situation will be clear by next Friday as we will hold a fair which always draw a lot of people,” he said, dismissing calls to postpone or cancel the event. “We trust the security apparatus' ability to ensure the safety of Christians.”

But for some, like Antonious Ghattas, acting deputy of the Coptic Catholic Cathedral in Alexandria, the ISI threats are “vacuous”.

The servant of St. Mary Gargas Orthodox Church, who preferred to remain anonymous, argued the government is imposing security measures on Anglican and Catholic churches only, leaving Orthodox institutions and adherents exposed.

According to official statistics, Copts–the vast majority of Egyptian Christians–represent around 10 percent of Egypt’s population.

“Security forces were supposed to cordon off the area to protect civilians,” the anonymous servant said. “The government only cares about the safety of foreigners. This is quite obvious in its indifference towards the discrimination Christians have been experiencing for a long time.”

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