An al Qa'eda 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 today.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) said in an internet statement that its threat 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," the statement said.
The group, which claimed the attack on Christians in a Baghdad church that ended on Sunday with the killing of 46 worshippers as security forces attempted to free them, 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.
Mrs 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 Mrs 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 per cent of Egypt's 80 million population and have been the target of sectarian attacks.
Sunday's bloodbath began when gunmen stormed the Sayidat al Nejat Syriac Christian cathedral in central Baghdad during evening mass, witnesses said.
The attackers immediately shot dead a priest and took worshippers hostage. The standoff ended when Iraqi forces backed by US troops stormed the building. Officials later announced that 46 Christians had died, including two priests, and around 60 had been wounded.
Seven security members also died, as well as five attackers.
Iraq's defence minister, Abdul Qader Obeidi, said the rescue was a "quick and successful operation".
Before the US-led invasion of 2003, around 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq but that number has since shrunk to 550,000 in the face of repeated attacks against the community and its places of worship.