CAIRO, Egypt • 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 furor at home that spilled over the borders and turned deadly when al-Qaida in Iraq cited the women as the reason behind the worst attack ever on Christians in Iraq — a 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-Qaida to show it is defending Islam and to exploit the situation to rally extremists against the churches," said Ammar Ali Hassan, an expert in 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 — a rule enforced even more strictly against the wives of priests. 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. The Coptic Church considers those who convert to other religions dead, making the marriage contract invalid.
Though Egyptian religious authorities say the women never succeeded in converting, the controversy in both cases escalated with protests by Egyptian Christians, who accused Muslims of abducting the women and forcing them to convert.
That riled Muslim extremists 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, generating such fear that most Christmas celebrations in the country were canceled.