After savage attack on Iraqi Christians that killed 58, militants warn "All Christians are targets"

All Christians in the Middle East are now “legitimate targets,” al Qaeda in Iraq announced Wednesday, as the group’s deadline for Egypt’s Coptic church to release alleged Muslim female prisoners expired.

CNN An audio message released Monday gave the church 48 hours to disclose the status of Muslim women it said are imprisoned in Coptic churches in Egypt.

The message purportedly came from the Islamic State of Iraq, which claimed responsibility for an attack on a Baghdad church Sunday that killed 58 people and wounded 75. The umbrella group includes a number of Sunni extremist organizations and has ties to al Qaeda in Iraq.

The group said the women’s alleged plight was the reason it stormed the church.

Wednesday, the group released a new message saying, “The Ministry of War of Islamic State of Iraq declares that all the centers, organizations and bodies of Christian leaders and followers have become legitimate targets by the Mujahedeens, wherever our hands will reach them.”

(Thanks to Edmondo for photos of some of the dead Iraqi Christians killed last weekend)

Worshippers at the Sayidat al-Nejat church in Baghdad were about to begin Sunday night services when gunmen entered the church, according to Martin Chulov, a journalist for Britain’s Guardian newspaper, who was at the scene.

As many as 120 people were taken hostage, said Lt. Col. Eric Bloom, a U.S. military spokesman. The gunmen held them for hours before security forces stormed in to end the standoff, arresting eight suspects.

Most of the hostages were killed or wounded when the attackers set off explosives inside the church, Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qader Obeidi said. At least two of the attackers were wearing explosive vests, which they detonated just minutes before security forces raided the church, police officials said.

The gunmen were demanding that the Iraqi government release a number of detainees and prisoners in Iraqi prisons, saying the Christian hostages would be freed in return, according to the police officials. Iraq’s defense minister later said on state television that the kidnappers had demanded the release of a number of prisoners in both Iraq and Egypt.

“The sword of slaughter will not be lifted off the necks of their followers until they denounce what the dog of the Egyptian church has committed, and until they show the Mujahedeens their serious endeavor to pressure the combatant (Coptic) church for the release of our Muslim sisters, who are captive in the prisons of their monateries,” the militant group said Wednesday.