Al-Qaida front group in Iraq threatens Christians with more violence after bloody church siege

Al-Qaida's front group in Iraq has threatened more attacks on Christians after a siege on a Baghdad church that left 58 people dead, linking the warning to claims that Egypt's Coptic Church is holding women captive for converting to Islam.

The Islamic State of Iraq, which has already claimed responsibility for Sunday's assault on a Catholic church Mass in downtown Baghdad, said its deadline for Egypt's Copts to release the women had expired. As a result, it said its fighters would attack Christians wherever they can be reached, raising the prospect of violence against Christians across the Middle East.

"We will open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood," the insurgent group said in a statement posted late Tuesday on militant websites.

The Islamic State of Iraq is an umbrella group that includes al-Qaida in Iraq and other allied Sunni insurgent factions. It is unclear exactly what led the group to seize on arguments over conversion that have raised tension between Egypt's Muslims and its minority Coptic Christian community.

In announcing its reasons for Sunday's attack, the group said it was giving the Coptic Church 48 hours to release women it says are being held against their will after converting to Islam and being forced to return to Christianity. The group also demanded the release of al-Qaida-linked prisoners held in Iraq.

With the deadline expired, the group said, "All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen (holy warriors) wherever they can reach them."

The group has specifically mentioned two Egyptian women who are married to Coptic priests. Some believe they converted to Islam to leave their husbands since divorce is banned by Egypt's Coptic Church.

Over the past few years in Egypt, arguments over conversions in both communities have worsened tensions already high over issues like the construction of new churches. The two communities generally live in peace, though clashes and attacks have taken place.

The conversion issue has become a rallying point for hard-line Islamists in Egypt.

The Baghdad church siege horrified Iraq's Christian community, hundreds of whom gathered Tuesday for a memorial service in Baghdad. One of the officials read a letter from Pope Benedict XVI to the crowd.

"For years the violence hasn't stopped hitting this country, and Christians are becoming the target of these cruel terrorist attacks," the letter read.

Sunday's attack was the deadliest ever recorded against Iraq's Christians, whose numbers have plummeted since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion as the community has fled to other countries.

On Tuesday it was Iraq's Shiite Muslims who bore the brunt of violence. A string of 13 attacks struck neighborhoods across the capital on Tuesday night.

The death toll in that violence climbed to 91 people by Wednesday, according to Iraqi police and hospital officials. No break down of the new death toll was immediately available. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

Those attacks evoked painful memories of the bloody sectarian war Iraq's Sunni and Shiite militias fought in 2006 and 2007, killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians.

The bombings hit civilians at restaurants and cafes where many Iraqis were gathered to enjoy the warm evening. The violence demonstrated the insurgents' ability to carry out coordinated attacks from one side of Baghdad to the other despite a network of police and army checkpoints and blast walls crisscrossing the capital.

Iraqi state TV aired footage Wednesday of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visiting victims of the blasts in Baghdad's hospitals. The televised bedside calls to civilians injured in attacks were a first for al-Maliki since he took office in 2006 — the year the country broke down along sectarian lines, prompting tit-for-tat killings of Sunnis and Shiites and driving millions of Iraqis out of their homes and out of the country.

Al-Maliki has been struggling to keep his job since his Shiite-dominated alliance was narrowly defeated by the Sunni-backed bloc of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi in the March 7 parliamentary election.

Neither bloc won an outright majority, setting up a prolonged contentious fight for allies that has left the government stalemated and Iraq's nascent political process deadlocked.

Source: AP News

Mochila insert follows...