In the news reports on Sunday's massacre by al-Qaeda of 42 Christians at Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church, one item struck many as incongruous -- one of the terrorists' demands was the release of two women purportedly held prisoner in Egyptian Coptic monasteries. While this has been little-noticed in the West, it is an explosive issue in Egypt, where threats against the Copts, about 10 percent of the population, have increased in a year that began with a massacre of Copts in Nag Hamadi on Christmas Eve.
Part of the background is the increasing abduction and forced conversion of Coptic women. On April 19, 2010, a bipartisan group of 18 members of the U.S. Congress wrote to Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, director of the State Department's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Office, about reports documenting that Coptic women and girls are increasingly subject to "fraud, physical and sexual violence, captivity, forced marriage, and exploitation in forced domestic servitude or commercial sexual exploitation, and financial benefit to the individuals who secure the forced conversion." They urged the TIP Office to investigate whether this should be covered in the 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report.
Islamist extremists responded by accusing the church of imprisoning two Christian women who had converted to Islam. One was Wafaa Constantine, wife of a Coptic priest, who disappeared in 2004 but then returned to the church. The other was Camilia Shehata, also a priest's wife, who disappeared on July 19, 2010. Copts believed that she was abducted by Muslim extremists, and asked, without success, for the security services to investigate. There were then widespread Coptic demonstrations and, on July 23, security services returned Camilia to her husband.
In early September, rumors were spread, particularly by Sheikh Abu Yehya, that Camilia had converted to Islam and that, to hide this, the church was drugging her and hiding her in a monastery in Ain Shams. (There are no monasteries in that area.) Camilia announced on TV that she had not converted, but radical sheikhs said the person on TV was an imposter. Al-Azhar, the leading Islamic institution in Egypt, denied that she had ever converted to Islam.
On September 15, the Al-Jazeera TV program "Without Limits" hosted the Islamist Dr. Selim el-Awah, former secretary-general of the World Council of Muslim Scholars. He accused the church of having its own militia and hiding weapons in monasteries and churches to prepare for war "against the Muslims" to divide Egypt into two states, and declared that Israel "is in the heart of the Coptic Cause" and gives weapons to Copts. Similar vilification was broadcast on Islamist satellite-TV channels, many funded by Saudi Arabia.
In the following weeks there were repeated demonstrations by Islamists against Copts, and particularly Coptic Pope Shenouda III, accusing him of being a U.S. agent and an abductor and torturer of female Muslim converts from Christianity, of stockpiling weapons to carry out war against Muslims, and of planning to create a Coptic state. On October 3, an organization calling itself the "Front of Islamic Egypt" warned Copts to stay at home with their families, as there would be a bloody confrontation on October 6. The organization's statement was the second in a series, the first of which threatened a bloodbath for the Copts.
On October 8, 2010, after Friday prayers, there were demonstrations by Muslims throughout Egypt calling for the women's release, and also for the trial of Father Bishoy, secretary of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Church, for comments purportedly questioning the authenticity of the Koran. Demonstrators demanded that the government search monasteries and churches for weapons, and shouted "Shenouda, just wait, we will dig your grave with our own hands," and "Islamic, Islamic, Egypt will remain Islamic." They called on Christians to dispose of Shenouda and for a boycott of Coptic businesses.
This is not the first time al-Qaeda has singled out the Copts. The Egyptian militant who blew up the United Nations compound in Baghdad in August 2003 was described by his organization as running "several operations against filthy Coptic Christians" before the bombing. Zawahiri singled them out in his February 10, 2005, message, accusing Americans of "supporting the regimes of oppression and Copts and suppression [sic]."
These incidents show that more extreme forms of Islam are still growing in the Muslim world, even in countries such as Egypt, often regarded as "moderate." They also show, despite recent books trying to argue that Islamist terrorism has nothing to do with religion, that al-Qaeda and similar groups see and explain the world through a religious prism and that their creed shapes how they pick and define their enemies.
Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.