Baghdad, Iraq - The Islamic State of Iraq, an insurgent group and Al Qaeda ally, on Tuesday declared all the country's Christians "legitimate targets."
The group says it believes that Muslim women are being held against their will in Coptic churches in Egypt. The Egyptian state, the Coptic church, and Egypt's leading Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood have all condemned the threats of violence against Christians.
The threat came while Iraq was still reeling from a series of car bombs across the capital Tuesday that killed at least 113 people in Shiite neighborhoods. The attacks bore the hallmarks of Sunni Arab militants like the Islamic State of Iraq. Tuesday's massacre appeared designed to fuel sectarian violence against Shiites.
That followed Sunday's targeting of Christians, when the Islamic State of Iraq seized a Catholic church in Baghdad and killed 58 people during a standoff with police. It was said to be the deadliest attack against Christians ever recorded in Iraq.
“All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for the mujahideen [holy warriors]," the Islamic State of Iraq said in a statement posted online late Tuesday.
Sunni militant chatrooms have been inflamed in recent weeks with claims that the Egyptian Coptic church is forcibly holding two women, wives of Coptic priests, who converted to Islam. “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 message continued.
The Coptic church is the Egyptian branch of the Eastern Orthodox right and as many as 10 percent of Egyptian's claim the faith.
One of the women, Camilia Shehata, went missing for a few days in July. After police escorted her home, Islamist protesters said she was being forcibly detained after converting to Islam. The other woman, Wafa Constantine, was held at a convent after her husband refused to grant her a divorce and rumors that she had converted circulated, reported Agence France-Presse.
After Sunday, Iraqi church leaders blamed the Iraqi government for failing to prevent the deadliest attack since before Iraq’s March election, reported The Christian Science Monitor. “If the sons of this country cannot live in peace then the situation is clearly unacceptable. Had we been provided with adequate security, this would not have happened,” Syriac church official Monsignor Pius Kasha told the Monitor.
Tuesday's attacks in Shiite neighborhoods, however, were far deadlier, with at least 17 car bombs detonated mostly over a period of 90 minutes, reported The Los Angeles Times. The attacks bore the signature of Al Qaeda in Iraq and underscored the fragility of the country, reported the Times:
The mayhem underscored the extent to which violence continues to define Iraq, even as American troops depart and memories of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion retreat from American consciousness. Each deadly incident, whether a fatal shooting or a major explosion, fuels foreboding that Iraq could once more fall apart as the nation seeks to function without a new government eight months after national elections.
Christians were also targeted ahead of the March elections. The Monitor's Jane Arraf visited the city of Erbil in northern Iraq to speak with the family of Adnan Hannah al-Dahan, who was the first of at least eight Iraqi Christians killed in the weeks leading up to the vote.
The murders have led to an exodus of one of the troubled city’s oldest minorities and fears that the attacks will keep Christians from voting in the Iraq election, scheduled for next week.
Iraq's Christian community is one of the world's oldest. But since the 2003 invasion, church bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations have scattered the community. Last year, Human Rights Watch estimated that two-thirds of Iraqi Christians have fled their homes since the war began.
In a recent background briefing, the Monitor found that the search for better opportunities abroad, a Christian's status as a target of Iraq's sectarian conflict, a low birth rate, and discrimination were all fueling the decline of Christians in the Middle East.