Pope Shenouda’s security tightened following Al-Qaeda threats

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CAIRO: A source close to the papal headquarters in Saint Mark’s Cathedral said on Tuesday that Pope Shenouda’s security will be tightened as a result of the threat by an Al-Qaeda group that raided a Baghdad church on Sunday.

Egyptian police also beefed up security measures for a Coptic festival being held in the ancient city of Luxor.

A top Luxor security official said new checkpoints were set up on the road leading to the monastery of Saint Girgis on Zuriyqat Mountain, where Christians gather to celebrate the birthday of the saint.

The official said the extra security measures will remain in place in Luxor until the festival is over. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media.

Egypt refused on Monday to react to demands over two Coptic women rumored to have converted to Islam made by the group that claimed a deadly hostage-taking in a Baghdad church.

SITE monitoring group said the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al-Qaeda branch which claimed Sunday’s attack that left 58 dead, the majority of which were Christians, gave Egypt’s Coptic Church 48 hours to release the two women or it would attack Christians across the region.

"Egypt categorically rejects having its name or affairs pushed into such criminal acts," the foreign ministry said in a statement. It also "strongly condemned" the attack on the church.

The Christians, including two priests, were killed in a raid on a Baghdad cathedral to free dozens of hostages held by Al-Qaeda gunmen.

Sources told Daily News Egypt that high-profile Egyptian security personnel contacted Pope Shenouda on Monday to inform him of the additional measures that will be taken to ensure his security, enforced by new special security forces trained to fight terrorism.

Sources requesting anonymity said that tight security measures will also be implemented on senior priests and church leadership — especially the Pope’s assistants — in addition to increasing normal security forces around churches in other governorates.

In an audiotape on SITE’s website, a man who said the Islamic State of Iraq’s suicide brigade was behind the kidnapping warned that the region’s Christians would be targeted if the two women were not released.

The women, Camilia Shehata and Wafa Constantine, are the wives of Coptic priests whom Islamists have said were forcibly detained by the Coptic Church after they had willingly converted to Islam.

"If you turn your churches into a prison for Muslim women, we will make them graveyards for you," he said, threatening to kill hostages if the group’s demand was not met.

"It won’t stop just with killing the hostages but you will open on the sons of your religion a door you do not wish to be opened," he continued.

“The Church is not afraid of Al-Qaeda threats,” Bishop Morkos, the head of the Orthodox Church’s media committee told Daily News Egypt. “We trust the security’s ability to protect all Egyptians, whether Muslims or Christians.”

The tape also addresses the Vatican, which convened a two-week synod of Middle East Catholic bishops last month.

"We say to the Vatican, as you met days ago with the Christians of the Middle East, regardless of their sect, to support them, now 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."

Shehata disappeared for a few days in July, setting off Coptic protests. Police found her and escorted her home, triggering protests by Islamists who said the church was detaining her after she converted to Islam.

Wafa Constantine also went missing, in 2004, reportedly after her husband refused to give her a divorce. She was temporarily sequestered at a convent as reports of her conversion were circulated.

Bishop Morkos denied allegations that Constantine and Shehata have been detained.

“Constantine declared in front of the prosecutor general that she is Christian and will continue to be, and Shehata declared her Christianity in front of the media,” said Morkos. “What do they want more than that?

“This is a pretext to destabilize Egypt’s security.”

The two cases threatened the fragile sectarian balance of the country, where Copts make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80-million population and have been the target of sectarian attack.

Meanwhile, the Administrative Court held the first hearing of a lawsuit filed by three lawyers against President Hosni Mubarak and Rami Ibrahim, the Cairo bureau chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jareeda, which calls upon Mubarak to force Pope Shenouda to release Constantine and Shehata.

Lawyers Tarek Abu-Bakr, Nizar Ghorab, and syndicate board member Gamal Tag stated in their lawsuit that Pope Shenouda’s decision to detain a Muslim citizen was illegal, and has triggered sectarian tension and harmed national unity.

They also stated that Egyptian law bans the detainment of citizens, regardless of their religion.

“The President appoints the Pope based on a presidential decree; consequently, he —the President — is responsible for the acts of his followers and their illegal administrative decisions,” reads the lawyers’ lawsuit.

The lawyers also requested documentation from Ibrahim that proves his newspaper’s prior allegation — that Shehata converted to Islam — is indeed true. –Additional reporting by Agencies.


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