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The wives of two Egyptian Coptic priests, forbidden by the church from divorcing their abusive husbands, desperately sought another way out by converting to Islam. When their intentions were discovered, police handed them over to the Church and their whereabouts since are unknown.

The cases caused a furor in Egypt that spilled over the border and turned deadly when al-Qaeda in Iraq cited the women as the reason behind the bloodiest attack ever on Christians in Iraq – a five-hour siege of a church in October that left 68 people dead.

It was a stark example of the schism between Christians and Muslims that runs through the Middle East and periodically erupts into violence.

“Amid the current sectarian discord, the timing is perfect for al-Qaeda to show it is defending Islam and to exploit the situation to rally extremists against the churches,” said Ammar Ali Hassan, an expert on Islamic movements.

Wafaa Constantine, 53, and Camilla Shehata, 25, lived in remote rural towns and enjoyed prestige as devoted and pious wives of conservative Coptic priests. But behind that veneer, a lawyer and a church official said, the women were trapped in abusive relationships.

Both tried to seek a divorce through church channels, but hit a dead end because the Coptic Orthodox Church forbids divorce – a rule enforced with particular rigour when the wives of priests are involved. They decided to rebel, not only against their husbands, but against the whole religion.

They sought to convert to Islam, something viewed as a disgrace in their community. The Coptic Church considers those who convert to other religions such as Islam dead, making the marriage contract invalid.

Though Egyptian religious authorities say the women never succeeded in converting, the controversy in both cases escalated with angry protests by Egyptian Christians, who accused Muslims of abducting the women and forcing them to convert.

That in turn galvanized Muslim hard-liners in Egypt who protested and accused the church of holding them against their will and forcing them to convert back to Christianity.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq turned it into a cause célèbre when it cited the women as the reason behind the Baghdad church siege. The group followed with more threats against Iraq’s Christian minority, creating such fear that most Christmas celebrations in the country were cancelled.

Egypt’s Christian minority, estimated at about 10 per cent of the country’s 80 million people, has grown more religiously conservative over the past three decades, as has the country’s Muslim majority.

Egypt’s Salafi movement, made up of extremely conservative Muslims, has long accused the Coptic Church of conspiring to “Christianize” Egypt. Though Salafis in Egypt reject violence, their doctrine is only a few shades away from that of groups such as al-Qaeda.

In weekly protests from August to November, bearded men in white robes gathered outside mosques in Egypt to denounce Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic Christian leader of Egypt, as an “infidel.” And they vowed revenge.

In one demonstration, Islamists raised a flag identical to that of al-Qaeda in Iraq – a black banner emblazoned with the phrase: “There is no God but God and Muhammad is God’s prophet.” Two days later, al-Qaeda in Iraq attacked the church.

The whereabouts of the women, meanwhile, is currently unknown. But Egyptian news reports say Ms. Constantine has lived the past six years in Saint Bishoy Monastery in the oasis of Wadi Natroun in the desert south of Alexandria, while Ms. Shehata stays with nuns in a Church residence in Cairo.

Both have been incommunicado, and their families and Coptic officials refuse to discuss their situation.

Source: theglobeandmail

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