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 have been unknown.

The cases caused a furore at home that spilled over the borders and turned deadly when al Qaida in Iraq cited the women as the reason behind the bloodiest attack yet on Christians in Iraq - a five-hour siege of a church in October that left 68 people dead.

It was the most stark example recently 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 Qaida 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.

Both 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. And 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 and unthinkable for those married to the priests.

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 galvanised Muslim hardliners in Egypt who protested and accused the church of holding them against their will and forcing them to convert back to Christianity.

Al Qaida in Iraq turned it into a cause celebre 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 Coptic 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 - extreme conservative Muslims - have long accused the Coptic Church there of conspiring to “Christianise” Egypt. Though Salafis in Egypt reject violence, their doctrine is only a few shades away from that of groups such as al Qaida. Both adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam that supposedly is a purer form of Islam said to have been practiced by Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century.

The Salafis have set up dozens of websites and Facebook groups to spread the word about the two women.

Hossam Aboul Boukhar, the founder of one of the websites, KamiliaShehata.com, said the Shehata case is not an Egyptian matter anymore but “an Islamic cause”. And he listed other women in similar situations.

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.

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