Why does Islamic State target Christians?

February 27, 2015

‘This month, the soldiers of the Khilafah in Wilayat Tarabulus captured 21 Coptic crusaders, almost five years after the blessed operation against the Baghdad church executed in revenge for Kamilia Shehata, Wafa Constantine, and other sisters who were tortured and murdered by the Coptic Church of Egypt.’


That’s the Islamic State / Daesh’s magazine, Dabiq, in its most recent issue – in an article titled Revenge for the Muslimat Persecuted by the Coptic Crusaders of Egypt.


The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims 220 Christians had been abducted by Daesh. The number rises with every new report.


What’s the motive for a sustained campaign against Christians? What theological rationale is offered?




As the paragraph quoted above states, Daesh believes the two women named were captured by Christians after converting to Islam and killed for apostasy – a charge that may well reflect their own practices more than those of the Coptic Church.


The conservative news source CNS News recently reported otherwise, writing, ‘No evidence has come to light that either of the named women were tortured or killed. Egyptian news reports cited by the Associated Press in 2010 said Shehata was staying with nuns in a church residence in Cairo while Constantine lived in a monastery in the desert south of Alexandria.’


A number of attacks against Christian Churches have taken place previously ‘in revenge for’ Shehata and Constantine, including one against a Chaldean Catholic church in Baghdad– because they couldn’t easily reach a Coptic target:


‘Therefore, the Islamic State leadership decided to target the Catholic Christians of Baghdad so as to teach the taghut (infidel head) of the Copts – (their late pope) Shenouda – that the price of Muslim blood is costly and so accordingly, if his church persecuted any Muslimah in Egypt, he would be directly responsible for every single Christian killed anywhere in the world when the Islamic State sought its just revenge…’


The choice to attack the church of a different religious denomination as a target of ease betrays a willingness to fudge details on the way to ‘revenge’.


‘So more than one hundred crusaders were killed and injured by just five brave istishhadiyyīn [i.e. self-martyrs] from the Islamic State. And the different Christian churches had no one to truly blame but Shenouda for the deaths of their brethren in kufr…’




Many people may assume that if IS believes that killing Christians is acceptable, that indicates either that it is in fact justified by Islam, or by the Salafist equivalent thereof (as preached by the Saudi regime), or at least by their fellow jihadists – yet in the same article in their magazine, they quote Ayman al-Zawahiri, since Bin Laden’s death the head of al-Qaeda, as saying:


‘I want to restate our position towards the Coptic Christians. We do not want to get into a war with them because we are busy in the battle against the greatest enemy of the Ummah [America] and because they are our partners in this nation, partners whom we wish to live with in peace and stability.’


So ISIS thinks killing Christians is Islamically imperative, while Al-Qaeda begs to differ? This should make it clear to western intelligence agencies, pundits, politicians, and members of the interested public, that interpretations of the relevant scriptural passages in the Qur'an differ.


It is not difficult to find Quranic passages that appear to paint all Jews and Christians as hostile to Islam.


Qur’an 5.51, for instance, says, ‘O believers, take not Jews and Christians as friends; they are friends of each other. Whoso of you makes them his friends is one of them. God guides not the people of the evildoers.’


On the other hand verse 82 says, ‘Thou wilt surely find the most hostile of men to the believers are the Jews and the idolaters; and thou wilt surely find the nearest of them in love to the believers are those who say 'We are Christians'; that, because some of them are priests and monks, and they wax not proud…’


Sura 2.256 of the Qur’an famously says, ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion’ – while 49.13 indicates divine appreciation of human variety – and the reason for it:


‘O mankind, We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another. Surely the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most godfearing of you. God is All-knowing, All-aware.’




Different verses (ayat) of the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet at different points in the early growth of Islam convey different attitudes to Jews and Christians. How then do Muslims choose among them?


One answer to this question is that some verses abrogate earlier ones, thus rendering them invalid. But which?


The answer turns out to be complex indeed, depending on historical context, the generality or specificity of a given revelation, and the particular school of Islamic thought in question.


Dr Jonathan Brown, professor of Islamic Civilization in the School of Foreign Service at Washington’s Georgetown University, recently published an in-depth study: Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet's Legacy, (OneWorld Publications, 2014). (Click here to read an extract).


In it, he describes both the practice of abrogation and some specifics of the Islamic approach to – and limitations of – warfare.


He says Islam has a long and distinguished history of interpretive differences, and taking a single verse out of context can give the appearance of Qur’anic backing for a very wide range of positions. It is therefore more than a little ironic for Daesh to claim, as they do:


‘It is important for Muslims everywhere to know that there is no doubt in the great reward to be found on Judgment Day for those who spill the blood of these Coptic crusaders wherever they may be found…’




There are differences of opinion as to the appropriate Christian response to the recent killings of Coptic Christians. The Coptic Church would say ‘there is no doubt in the great reward to be found on Judgment Day’ not for those who slaughter, but for those who are slaughtered for their faith.


The Orthodox Pope Tawadros II has announced that their names will be inscribed in the Coptic Synaxarium, equivalent to the Roman Martyrology, and according to Pope Francis the Catholic Church may also name them martyrs:


‘The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard… It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ. This is not to minimise differences, nor to turn a blind eye to them. However, in dying for Christ do such divisions among Christians retain real relevance? In dying for Christ one has become the perfect disciple, and enters a real communion with Christ’s Body in heaven.’


While Pope Francis claims the great honor of martyrdom for those who died precisely because they were Christians and would not recant, the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, Bishop Angaelos, offered a note of caution:


‘Sometimes we look at things such as these brutal killings, and we see the great witness of these very faithful men, but then become triumphalist – which in itself, could become offensive to the world. If we follow the example of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who was powerful and gracious both at the most powerful and victorious times of His resurrection, but also at the most apparently – in the eyes of the world – weak times of His crucifixion, we have to hold that balance, and keep Him as the main example of our lives and our witness today.’


Bishop Angaelos, after condemning the killings as ‘a crime against humanity, and if there's anything we should stand for as human beings, first and foremost it's the sanctity of all human life’, went on to tell CNN:


‘It may seem unbelievable to some of your readers, but as a Christian and a Christian minister I have a responsibility to myself and to others to guide them down this path of forgiveness. We don't forgive the act because the act is heinous. But we do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.’


Perhaps even more unexpected, because more intimate in its source, was the response of the brother of two of the slain who used live television to thank their killers for including the men’s declaration of faith in the video of their execution.


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