The Islamic State has released a video of the beheading of Egyptian Christians in Libya. The chilling video surfaced following an article published in the group’s magazine Dabiq showing photos of twenty-one Coptic Egyptians kidnapped by militants in Libya. According to the Dabiq article, the kidnapping was “in revenge for Kamilia Shehata, Wafaa Constantine, and other sisters who were tortured and murdered by the Coptic Church in Egypt.” No political reasons were mentioned in the report. Interestingly, that key assertion was overlooked by many reports and analyses of the attacks. In fact, when Jen Psaki, the spokesperson of the U.S. department of State was asked about the status of minorities in the Middle East, her reply was [the kidnapping] “is more about Libya than it is about Egypt.”
Ms. Psaki is wrong in her assessment. Although the logistics of the kidnapping were directly linked to the disintegration of Libya and the arrival of ISIS to its cities, the ideological motives behind the kidnapping are rooted in the troubled relationship between Islamists and Copts in Egypt, which started some time ago and have continued since the 2011 revolution.
The two women mentioned in the Dabiq article, Wafaa Constantine and Kamilia Shehata, are examples of disputed conversions to Islam that were exploited for political reasons. For years, conversion to and from Islam used to happen in Egyptian society, but it was always discrete, away from the media and public sphere. The situation has changed, however, in the last decade of Mubarak’s rule. A combination of the rise of private TV satellite channels, increasingly assertive Islamist movements and a defiant Coptic Church have rendered what were previously private affairs into a matter of tense public debate.
Constantine’s story surfaced sometime between 2003-2004. She was a Coptic Christian woman and wife of a Coptic priest whom Egyptian Islamists claimed had voluntarily left Christianity and converted to Islam. Copts, however, asserted that she was kidnapped and forced to convert. Rumors and unconfirmed allegations then spread like wildfire in an increasingly polarized society, with people being easily seduced by shallow stories and religious zeal.
The fact that Wafaa Constantine later told Egypt’s general prosecutor that she had been “born Christian” and would “live and die” as such, did not tame the Islamists’ anger or dampen their convictions that she is a Muslim and not Christian. Ten years ago, I heard this chilling remark from an Islamist acquaintance during the peak of the flurry around Costantine, “They are playing with fire and one day it will burn them.” He loathed the Copts and their late Pope Shenouda. His voice rattled with anger while watching a video of an Islamist cleric portraying the cases as examples of “ how the honor of Islam is being raped by the Coptic Church.” I later spoke to some Salafis, and they were equally angry at Copts, blaming the Coptic Pope for her reversion to Christianity.
The other case of Kamilia Shehata is strikingly similar. Again, a Coptic woman, married to a Coptic priest, she later disappeared with conflicting allegations about what really happened to her. The difference, however, was that her case coincided with the removal of ex-president Mubarak and the security vacuum that followed. In May 2011, a group of armed Islamists attacked the St. Mina Church in Imbaba in Cairo, claiming that Kamilia Shehata was held in the church. A police search of the premises was not enough for the crowd and clashes erupted leading to at least ten deaths and 200 people being injured. A church video released of Shehata’s Christian confession fell on deaf ears.
Tension later eased, however, Islamists have continued to express their grievances about the alleged conversions of Constantine and Shehata. Here are some Arabic examples by Sheikh Mohamed Hassan, Abu-Ishaq al-Howaeini, and a report by Al-Jazeera Arabic.
It was their opinion that the women were Muslims and forced to reconvert to Christianity. The handling of the situation by the Egyptian government and the Coptic Church in both cases was less than perfect and shrouded with secrecy and a lack of transparency. However, Islamist obsession with these two cases unveils their bias and one-track thinking. While on the one hand they are critical of the Coptic Church’s protectionist approach toward conversion to Islam, they also on other hand, reject any conversion from Islam to Christianity and insist that it should be punished by death.
The assault on Egypt’s social fabric started long ago. For years, Islamists of various shades have created a deep pool of grievances, shared by both their violent and non-violent groups. It is no surprise that the Islamic State has dipped into that communal pool and used it to justify its barbaric behavior against Copts in Libya.