Al-Qaeda and the Coptic Converts

by Florian Flade

Cairo July 2010 – Muslim protesters demand release of Coptic Convert Kamilia Shehata

Every time a new al-Qaeda video emerges, especially if it features the leadership figures Osama Bin Laden and Ayman az-Zawahiri, experts, amateurs, media and bloggers start to hunt for a secret message in the actual tape. Is there a hidden order for an upcoming attack? What is the REAL meaning of the speech? Is OBL delivering a secret code in his words to his followers?

To my knowledge, there was not a single case where al-Qaeda used an official propaganda tape to active a specific sleeper cell and thereby caused a significant terror attack. Al-Qaeda´s propaganda tapes are in fact what they are: propaganda messages, a proof of life, a motivation booster for the „foot soldiers“, a recruiting tool and a comment on US or European foreign policy, on a specific event or as reaction to a politician´s statement or decision by al-Qaeda´s enemies.

That of course does not mean, there is no interesting, unusual content in the tapes occasionally. In the most recent releases by al-Qaeda´s official media production wing „As-Sahab“, I noticed something worth telling. I wanted to blog about this, but did not have the time yet to get a full article out.

Since the October 1th Bin Laden audio tape, in which the al-Qaeda leader gave his opinion on how to change the „Methods of Relief Work“ in the Muslim world and the demand to push the efforts of agriculture and cattle farming in Muslim countries, As-Sahab media has put a question in the final part of its videos (both most recent Adam Gadahn tapes).

For a few seconds, an Arabic sentences appears along with the As-Sahab Media logo reading 

„Who is defending Wafa Konstantin and Kamilia Shehata and her sisters?“

Al-Qaeda refers to two prominent Egyptian Coptic women who converted to Islam facing harsh resistance and even threats from within the Coptic community. Islamic websites and forums are spreading the story of the two females who were allegedly kidnapped and imprisoned by officials of the Egyptian Coptic Church because they choose Islam over Christianity.

Wafa Constantine, the 48 year-old wife of a Coptic Priest, disappeared in December 2004. She allegedly wanted to convert to Islam and decided to leave her husband and family to reach out to Mosque communities.
The family said, Wafa was actually obducted by Muslims and forced to convert to Islam. This rumour soon started violent protests by Egypt´s Coptic Christians, demanding her release.

The angry protests outside St.Mark´s cathedral in Cairo, only ended after the Coptic worshippers were assures, Wafa Constantine was back in family custody.

When the Coptic woman finally returned or was returned to her family, rumours began to spread within Muslim communities, she had been kidnapped by Egyptian security forces and handed over to Coptic Church authorities who threatened her to remain Christian.

Egyptian government officials confirmed, Mrs.Constantine indeed wanted to accept Islam as her new religion but was prevented to do so by her family.
Later Egypt´s prosecutor-general claimed, Wafa Constantine had approached the police telling them, she wanted to change her religion. After a meeting with Coptic officials, she had apparently changed her mind. Coptic Pope Shenouda III, who rules the Egyptian Coptic Church since 1987, had granted her mercy, a Church officials said.

That was nothing more than a pure lie to the radical Islamists of Egypt. In their eyes, the case of Wafa Constantine was the proof for the Coptic Churches´ hatred towards Islam and Muslims and the abuse of women. Wafa Constantine was one of them, a Muslima by choice, many Egyptian Muslims claimed. The Coptic Church brutally forced her to remain a Christian, the rumours and allegations said, hinting towards a exceptional position of the Church in Egypt – acting on power-base and a community-system aside the government´s law.

Six years after the controversial incident involving Wafa Constantine, a similar case of a Coptic woman apparently converting to Islam, caused angry protest in Egypt.

On July 18th 2010, Kamilia Shehata Zakher disappeared from her home in Deir Mawas, 400km south of Cairo. The 24 year-old schoolteacher is married to Tadros Samaan Razeq, a Coptic priest and head of the St.Mark´s Church of Mowas Cathedral in Minya.

For five days, Mrs.Zakher was missing and her family suspected a kidnapping case while neighbors said, their was obviously a serious argument within in the family, possibly marriage related.

Coptic Christians again protested in Cairo, chanting „Bring us Kamilia Shehata back!“ and demanded Muslims kidnappers to release the priest´s wife. As the news was out, Mrs.Shehata Zakher had converted to Islam and as a result was kidnapped not by Muslims but by Coptic Extremists, Egpytian Muslims took to the streets as well.

Some of the protesters were showing a picture allegedly showing Kamilia Shehata wearing an Islamic headscarf. The portrait was a Photoshop-fake, Christian sources in Egypt claim, while it is a clear symbol for Mrs.Shehata Zakher´s Muslim belief to the Muslim community.

On July 23th 2010, the Coptic woman was found in a friend´s house in Cairo and handed over to her family by Egyptian security forces. Security forces did not disclose any details concerning the disappearance of Zakher or how she was found. Father Aghabious, a Coptic Church officials, thanked President Mubarak, Minister of Interior Habib el-Adly, and security forces for their efforts. Zakher’s priest husband, meanwhile, declined to comment.

Observers of the social unrest in Egypt stated, the mysterious disappearance of the Coptic woman Wafa Constantine and Kamilia Shehata could be the result of the Coptic Church´s strict ruling on marriage. The Coptic Church does not allow divorce and is increasingly struggling with women´s rights.

Dr. Walid Kazziha, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, argued that the Coptic behavior towards the alleged female converts was a reaction to the resurgence of Islamism in Egypt over the past 30 years.

„This wave of Islamism has confined minority groups in the region, including Egypt, to limited political areas,“ Dr.Kazziha told Egyptian press. „As a result, we are witnessing a reaction from minority groups – both ethnic and religious.“

Is that reaction the reason al-Qaeda mentions the cases of Wafa Constantine and Kamilia Shehata in the recent tapes of Osama Bin Laden and American spokesman Adam Yahya Gadahn alias „Azzam al-Amrikki“? The terror network mentioned one female convert, Mrs.Constantine, in a previous release.

In the November 2008 As-Sahab interview, Ayman az-Zawahiri said the government-elected (now dead) leader of Al-Azhar University of Cairo, Sheikh Tantawi, „gave Wafa Constantine over to the dungeons of the monasteries“.

„And in the tragedy of Wafa Constantine, Sheikh al-Azhar [Tantawi] and his helpers were backtracking and handing over Wafa Constantine while the Pope and his priests were being adamant, engaging in escalation and applying pressure“, Zawahiri claimed and asked: „So who are the majority, and who are the minority?“

The As-Sahab media speaker asked al-Qaeda´s deputy: „Speaking of Wafa Constantine, some Egyptian papers have reported that Wafa was killed in the Wadi al Natroun monastery.“

Zawahiri stated: “If that report is true, its a calamity and disaster, and [responsibility for] the torture, punishment and persecution suffered by this Mujahida and liability for her death – if she has been killed – is born partly by Sheikh al-Azhar [Tantawi], because he is the one who handed her over to the torturers in monasterial robes.“

As-Sahab: “Why is that?”

Zawahiri: „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 mosques have been invaded, and how many Imam have been humiliated, arrested and tortured, but the police don’t dare to raid a church or detain a priest.“

I don´t think the reemergence of the Wafa Constantine statement in the 2010 tapes should be treated as a coincidence. Egypt is heading towards parliamentary elections in November and the regime of Cairo is possibly the oldest arch enemy of al-Qaeda. The organization´s brutality and hardcore belief in violence to achieve its goal was pretty much born in the torture prisons of Egypt, the crackdown-tactic of the Egyptian government to deal with the religious movements, headed by the Muslim Brotherhood, causes a steady stream of radical Islamists to join Egypt´s oppressed opposition.

With al-Qaeda´s „brain“, Ayman az-Zawahiri, an Egyptian national took over the network´s strategy in the 1990s and was thereby responsible for the path al-Qaeda took towards Arab regimes. Zawahiri focusses on Egyptian politics, probably psychologically damaged by his time in the dungeons of Cairo in the 1980s.

The violent militancy in Egypt is on a history low since 9/11. Except for some smaller incidents involving grenade or bomb attacks on tourists in the capital Cairo and suicide (and regular) bombings on the Sinai Peninsula, al-Qaeda did not succeed to stir up Jihadi violence in Egypt in the 2000-years.

Egypt, in addition to Saudi-Arabia, is still al-Qaeda´s prime example of a „murtadeen“, a traitor-regime who has sold Islam for Nationalism and gave up the support for the oppressed and dying Ummah for America´s support. Leading religious authorities are now loyal to the regime, preaching a peaceful Islam – only allowed to call for fighting when the Palestinian question is raised.

Decades of Nationalist dictatorship grew a huge potential for Jihadi militancy and yet, the big eruption of al-Qaeda inspired attacks is missing. Thousands of Islamic activists remain imprisoned, the Muslim Brotherhood reports almost monthly raids of their buildings and the seizure of material and arrests of its members.

In the 1970s and 1980s, militant groups successfully recruited the desperate Youth of the Islamic uprising. People like Ayman az-Zawahiri entered the Egyptian prisons as Islamists, but when they were released they were Jihadis – torture, abuse and oppression has poisoned their minds.

The two female Coptic converts have become symbols of Egypt´s lack of defending it´s Muslim identity. While the Coptic Christians are regarded as oppressed minorities, not allowed to build new or renew existing churches, in the West, in Egypt the sentiment has changed. „

„The Coptic Church is an independent state under the protection of the American Cross“, Zawahiri said in November 2008. What better example than the alleged forced-conversion of Wafa Constantine and Kamilia Shehata at the hands of their Coptic families and Church communities?

If al-Qaeda´s leaders succeed in convincing Egypt´s Islamists to act in the defense of the „new Muslim sisters“, religious violence will erupt to an extent where the regime can only react in a brutal crackdown and use of force.

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