BAGHDAD — 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, the group said in a statement posted late Tuesday on militant websites, "All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen (holy warriors) wherever they can reach them."
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The conversion issue has become a rallying point for hard-line Islamists in Egypt. Egyptian Islamist protesters said the two women had converted to Islam, reportedly in an effort to leave their husbands since the church forbids divorce, and were being detained by the church. A priest denied the claim and said they were in monasteries for their safety.
The threat raised the prospect of violence against Christians across the Middle East, with the statement adding, "We will open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood."
The ISI 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 the arguments over conversion that have raised tension between Egypt's Muslims and its minority Coptic Christian community.
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Egyptian authorities were quick to condemn the al-Qaida threat and to boost security at churches in the country, where Christians make up 10 percent of the 78 million people, the biggest Christian population in the Middle East.
Call could find 'receptive ears'
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, a banned group that long ago renounced violence to bring political change, also condemned the threat and said security forces could stop militants. Its own members are regularly rounded up by the authorities.
But even if the Iraqi group has no allies or network in Egypt to carry out its threat, some said it could stir radical Islamists into action against the Christian community.
"That kind of call may find some receptive ears in Egypt but it won't find the receptive ears of an existing organization capable of striking with the kind of sophistication that we see in Iraq," said Cairo-based political analyst Issandr El Amrani.
Instead, he said it might be taken up by followers of the strict Salafi school of Islam, who have been vocal critics of the Coptic church in the conversion dispute.
Over the past few years in Egypt, arguments over conversions in both the Christian and Muslim 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 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.Story: 58 die in siege on Baghdad Catholic church
"For years the violence hasn't stopped hitting this country, and Christians are becoming the target of these cruel terrorist attacks," the letter read.
The ISI has ridiculed the pope as "the hallucinating tyrant of the Vatican" and warned that Christians would be "extirpated and dispersed" from Iraq.
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.
"In Iraq, every attack prompts the exodus of thousands of Christians," said the Rev. Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian Jesuit who is one of the Vatican's leading experts on Islam.
Iraq's Christians once numbered 1.5 million out of a total Iraqi population of about 30 million. Church officials believe that hundreds of thousands have either left the country or been displaced to other parts of the country.
"They say they have no guarantees there. The Shiites have their militias, the Sunnis have their militias and the Kurds have a well-protected autonomous province in the north. The Christians have neither militia nor a region," Samir said.
Shiite Muslims targeted
But 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 breakdown 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.Story: Bombs go off across Baghdad; at least 76 killed
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 civilians.
Iraq's political struggles
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.
Iraq's parliament will meet on Monday to elect a speaker, the chamber said on Wednesday, a move that could break the eight-month political deadlock and lead to al-Maliki's reappointment as prime minister.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.