(AINA) -- The attack by Islamic terrorists on the congregation of the Assyrian Our Lady of Deliverance Catholic church in central Baghdad, on October 31, resulted in killing of 52 catholic Assyrians, including two priests, 5 policemen, and wounding 75. 5 terrorists died either by detonating their explosive belts or being killed by the Iraqi security. The Martyrs Brigade of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), a Sunni militant umbrella group affiliated with al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The gunmen had reportedly told the authorities from inside the church through a mobile phone that in exchange for setting the hostages free, they demanded the release of two Egyptian Christian women they insisted were Muslims and were being held against their will as prisoners by the Coptic Church in Egypt. They gave the Coptic Church 48 hours to respond to their demands.
A communique and an audio-video released by ISI, posted on radical Islamic forums confirmed that hostage taking in the Assyrian Catholic church was in part an action directed against the Coptic church in Egypt.
"In response to the call of Allah and the voice of the helpless women, Camelia Shehata and Wafaa Constantine and their sisters, held captive in the hands of the Cross Worshippers in Egypt, we, the suicide battalion of the Islamic State of Iraq have carried out this task. Our demands are simple and clear, our captive women in the hands of your Christian brethren in Egypt, in exchange for the Christians held by us in the Church."
The chilling voice on the audio-video threatened the Vatican to "pressure them to release our captive sisters, or killing will reach all of you and [Coptic Pope] Shenouda will bring destruction to all the Christians of the region." The audio went on to say "If you turn your churches into a prison for Muslim women, we will make them graveyards for you," threatening to kill the Assyrian hostages if the group's demand was not met.
Commenting on the Al-Qaida statements, Coptic activist Mark Ebeid said "My heart bleeds when I think of the possibility that over one hundred and twenty innocent Iraqi Christian brethren who went to Church on Sunday to pray, would pay the price for handing over to the Muslim fundamentalist two innocent Coptic women who never became Muslims, but some Salafi Sheikhs in Egypt decided to spread this unfounded allegations and convinced thousand of Muslims of their fabrications." He added "Besides, the Coptic church would have never delivered two of its children, who sought refuge within its walls, to the fundamentalists."
The audio ended by warning the Copts against not responding, otherwise, they would be opening the door to serious harm to Christians not only in Iraq, but also in Egypt, the Levant and other countries of the Middle East.
Coptic Pope Shenouda III was unaware of the hostage drama , as he was on a plane on his way back to Egypt from the Unites States. The 86-year old Coptic pontiff sent his condolences on Monday to the Assyrian Catholic Church in Iraq, expressing his "deepest sorrow for this tragic incident which killed a large number of innocent people in Iraq."
The threats directed at the Coptic Church were covered by the majority of the Egyptian media, to assess its seriousness and possible danger to Egyptian Coptic churches.
President Mubarak and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar condemned the attack and the official spokesman of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Egypt categorically rejected the involvement of its name or its affairs in such criminal act.
Commenting on the incident, Bishop Marcos, chairman of the Coptic Church PR Committee, told the Egyptian media the Church is not afraid of the al-Qaeda threats which are issued by a group of terrorists, and that "God is the protector of the Copts." He confirmed that the Coptic church has not imprisoned anyone and asserted that the two named Coptic women have never converted to Islam and were staying in monasteries for their safety. "All of these things are illusions in the minds of those sick people."
Most analysts interviewed by the media downplayed the seriousness of the threat to the Coptic church in view of the absence of al-Qaeda off-shoots in Egypt, however, they all advised vigilance and precaution. Once more the conspiracy theory appeared, with either Israel or Iran as culprit.
Dr. Naguib Gobrail, head of the Egyptian Federation for Human Rights, asked the Interior Minister to take the threats seriously and held the Egyptian government responsible for the protection of its Coptic citizens.
Church sources said that church services are operating normally and the weekly Wednesday sermon given by Pope Shenouda, which is attended by thousands, will take place as usual.
It was reported that security around churches was stepped up in Egypt, and more security checking at the airports were carried out on citizens from Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and other countries.
Thirteen fundamentalists' demonstrations have taken place every Friday in front of mosques in Egypt , demanding the release of Wafaa Constantine and Camelia Shehata from church prisons.
In 2004, Wafaa Constantine, a mother of two children was married to Father Youssef, a Coptic priest in Abu Matameer, Beheyra province; she experienced serious marital problem because her husband's legs were amputated after an accident, causing a change in his behavior. In order to get a divorce, she decided to convert to Islam. Ms. Constantine did not go to Al Azhar , but went to State Security with her wish to convert. At that time, the authorities were forced by law to inform the church about Constantine's intention and to arrange for what was known as "Advice and Guidance Sessions" by priests in the presence of security, to ascertain her sincerity in converting to Islam.
Security had kept her in a safe place and three clergy met with her at intervals, answering her queries. She decided not to convert, and gave a statement to prosecution with her own hand writing giving her decision with an addition " I was born a Christian and will live and die a Christian."
The Church received her from the prosecution and took her to a monastery in Wadi Natroun "to keep her in a safe place and protect her," said Metropolitan Bishoy, who was one of the Coptic clergy attending the "Advice and Guidance Sessions," explaining that "we are afraid some people may accuse her of Apostasy or kill her."
The Church held a press conference giving the whole story, asserting that Wafaa Constantine will remain in the monastery and will not return back to her husband. The Attorney General issued a statement to this effect. "Since that time she has been living in a monastery in Wadi Natrun, where she spends her time in reading and translating books" said Bishop Bachomius of Beheira in September 2010 to the newspapers. Her husband died in 2006.
Camelia Shehata, wife of Father Tedaos Samaan, priest in Deir Mawas, Minya Governorate, disappeared on July 19, resulting in Coptic demonstrations against State Security for refusing to help her husband find her. Five days later, according to the official version by State Security, Camilia had a row with her husband and left home, staying with one of her relatives in Cairo; security found her and handed her back to her family. Not wishing to go back yet to her husband, she stayed with her 18-month-old son in a house for women belonging to the church.
Surprisingly a few days later, a rumour spread by a fundamentalist shaikh that Camelia converted to Islam and that as they were on their way to Al-Azhar to authenticate her conversion, Camelia was taken by State Security (AINA 9-18-2010). Muslim TV satellite channels were calling for her return to Islam and demonstrations went out in front of mosques calling for her freedom from her "captivity" and accusing the Coptic church and Pope Shenouda for holding her hostage. She appeared on a video confirming that she was a Christian and never thought of converting to Islam. Al-Azhar also denied she ever came there but the demonstrations continued (AINA 10-10-2010).
Hamdi Zakzouk, Minister of Endowment , during a lecture at Cairo University on November 2, asserted that Camelia never converted to Islam or went to Al-Azhar. He also heavily criticized the weekly Friday fundamentalist demonstrations which called for the return of "our Muslim sister."
By Mary Abdelmassih