Al-Qaeda in Iraq said that a deadline expired for Egypt's Coptic church to free women hostages, declaring Christians "legitimate targets", US-based SITE monitoring group said as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood called for protection of churches.
Al-Qaeda said in an Internet statement its threat was justified by the church's refusal to indicate the status of the women it said were being held captive in monasteries, SITE said.
"All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for the mujahedeen (holy warriors) wherever they can reach them," said the statement.
The group which claimed the capturing of Christians in a Baghdad church that ended Sunday with the killing of 46 people had said that the attack was to seek the release of an alleged converts to Islam in Egypt.
"Let these idolaters, and at their forefront, the hallucinating tyrant of the Vatican, know that the killing sword will not be lifted from the necks of their followers until they declare their innocence from what the dog of the Egyptian Church is doing," the group said in its latest statement.
It also demanded that the Christians "show to the mujahedeen their seriousness to pressure this belligerent church to release the captive women from the prisons of their monasteries."
The women, Camilia Shehata and Wafa Constantine, are the wives of Coptic priests whom al-Qaeda said were forcibly detained by the Coptic Church after they had willingly converted to Islam.
Following the threat, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood urged the state to protect Christian places of worship.
"The Muslim Brotherhood is stressing to all, and primarily Muslims, that the protection of holy places of all monotheistic religions is the mission of the majority of Muslims," the group said in a statement on its website late on Tuesday.
"The Brothers reject all stupid threats against Christian places of worship in Egypt issued by anyone and under any pretext," the group said.
"The Egyptian state and the Egyptian people must protect holy places of all worshippers of monotheistic religions," it added.