(AP) SANAA, Yemen - Al Qaeda's Yemen branch said Thursday that it killed an American teacher because he was trying to spread Christianity in the mainly Muslim Arab nation.
Joel Shrum, a 29-year-old native of Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, was gunned down on Sunday in the central city of Taiz, where he had been living with his wife and two sons. He was studying Arabic and teaching English at a language institute.
The claim of responsibility, which was posted on a militant website, comes as the terror network increasingly has sought to exploit the political turmoil in the Arab world's most impoverished nation.
"It was God's gift for the mujahedeen to kill the American Joel Shrum who was actively proselytizing under the cover of teaching in Taiz," said the statement by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the terror network's Yemen branch is formally known.
The slain teacher had worked at the International Training and Development Center, which was established in the 1970s and is one of the oldest foreign language institutes in Yemen.
A text message that circulated by mobile phone in Yemen after his killing said "holy warriors" had killed "a senior missionary" in Taiz, the country's second most populous city after the capital Sanaa.
Shrum's parents, who reside in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, say he went to Yemen in 2009 to learn Arabic, not to proselytize, and became passionate about teaching business skills to Yemenis.
A colleague at the language center, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said Shrum used to encourage Yemenis to stay true to their Islamic faith and did not try to convert people to Christianity.
He said Shrum not only taught Yemenis English, but would often buy students books and assist them in learning computer skills.
Hundreds of youth activists and other protesters marched Tuesday through Taiz demanding justice for the Shrum. They carried photos of Shrum as they marched through the city's streets, chanting, "Yemen is not a place for terrorism. We love you Joel!"
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said it would not allow Christian proselytizing to continue in Yemen and threatened to attack other U.S. citizens and interests if the United States does not stop aiding Israel, viewed as an enemy by most Arab nations.
"The United States, its infidel subjects and interests, are legitimate targets for our jihad until it ends its war against Islam and Muslims, starting with its aid for Jews in Palestine and recurring crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen."
The statement's authenticity could not be verified, but it was issued by al-Fajr, the media arm of al Qaeda, and posted on a website that routinely carries militant statements.
Al Qaeda and other militant groups are active in Yemen, located on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen has suffered a breakdown of security during a yearlong uprising that eventually led to the ouster of the country's president last month after 33 years of authoritarian rule.
Since he stepped down last month, the former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been accused by the opposition of meddling in the country's affairs. They also accuse his loyalists in top security positions of allowing and at times possibly encouraging militant attacks as a means of eroding the capabilities of the new national unity government.