coptic bombing At midnight on New Year's Eve, twenty-one congregants at the Saints Church in Alexandria, Egypt, were killed in what was reported to be a suicide bombing. The attack was carried out exactly two months after the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) had attacked a church in Baghdad and had threatened additional attacks against Christians, not only in Iraq, but also in Egypt and elsewhere.

In its propaganda, the ISI has positioned itself as championing the cause of two women, Wafa Constantine and Camellia Shehata, whom jihadists believe the Coptic Church of Egypt imprisoned following their alleged conversion to Islam. Indeed, al-Qaeda and other jihadists have been interested in the issue of the two women for some time.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, touched upon the issue of Wafa Constantine and the Coptic Christian Church in a video released in November 2008. Constantine was reported missing in 2004 after she left her husband, a Coptic Christian priest, and reportedly converted to Islam. Zawahiri condemned the Coptic Church, stating:

"No one in Egypt - from Hosni Mubarak to the lowest officer - is able to approach the Coptic Church or any one of its monasteries… Because the Coptic Church is an independent state under the protection of the American Cross; and America, which claims to protect religious freedom and fight to prevent religious persecution, is the one who forced the Egyptian government to hand over Wafa Constantine to the Church, and it is the one who protects the Church and its monasteries from any inspection or legal prosecution. Thus, in tortured Egypt, how many a mosque has been invaded, and how many an Imam has been humiliated, arrested and tortured, but the police don't dare to raid a church or touch a priest.”

The issue of Camellia Shehata, also a wife of a Coptic Christian priest, rose to prominence in July 2010, when she too was reported missing. Members of jihadist forums took up the issue and exhorted Muslims in Egypt to take revenge by attacking and kidnapping Christians. For example, in a series of posts on the Shumukh al-Islam jihadist forum in August 2010, jihadists gave several suggestions for their revenge, including poisoning Christians in Egypt, kidnapping and killing Coptic priests, and detonating explosives at churches during celebrations. One jihadist wrote: “The question of sister Camellia is a decisive and critical matter. We cannot rest until Allah provides a resolution between us and the disbelievers.”

As-Sahab, al-Qaeda’s media arm, also urged Muslims to support the issue of the women, making an appeal in the closing credits of the group's videos released between October and December of 2010. For example, following a speech by Usama bin Laden calling for relief efforts for Pakistan after the devastating flooding in the country, a brief message appeared reading: “Who will support Wafa Constantine and Camellia Shehata and their sisters? Where are the youths of Islam who have respect towards the oppressed Muslim women?” Jihadists also noted this incitement, with one writing: “Will al-Qaeda strike in Egypt to help Camellia and to make Camellia a slogan for the new era of jihad in a land that had always begotten mujahideen leaders? Wait O Christians of Egypt! Al-Qaeda announced a relentless war against you, so watch and see!”

The ISI's threats against Christians and the Coptic Church of Egypt became reality on October 31, 2010, when five ISI fighters took congregants hostage at the Our Lady of Deliverance Church in the al-Karrada district of Baghdad. During its raid, the ISI released an audio message from a member of its suicide battalion, addressing the Vatican and Christian leaders, and condemning Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria for bringing destruction upon his people. He said:

“The end will not stop at killing the hostages only, but you will open a door unto the followers of your religion that they wouldn’t have wished be open, and not only in Iraq, but in Egypt and the Levant and the rest of the countries in the area; there are hundreds of thousands of your people amongst us and hundreds of churches, and all of them will be targets for us if you do not comply.”

The five fighters were ultimately killed by Iraqi security forces, and the hostages were freed. However, since the attack, the ISI and their supporters on jihadist forums have continued to make threats against the Coptic Church, demanding the release of the women or information about their fate. Following the suicide bombing in Alexandria on New Year's Eve, excited jihadists praised the attack and prayed that more would follow until their the women are freed and the Church pays for its alleged crime.