The Worsening State of Libya's Christians

What began as a Western-backed chance to assist Libyans in gaining freedom from an oppressive dictator has resulted, according to some reports, in nearly the entire population of 100,000 Libyan Christians leaving the country. The rising power of numerous radical Islamist militias, which have recently launched a low-scale terror war against Christians, is increasingly being felt throughout the country. This anti-Christian effort by Islamist militias has been also been aided by a Libyan government incapable or even unwilling to protect Libya’s Christians. While it is unknown if it is the Libyan jihadists’ goal to have all Christians expelled, the fear created by their operations is producing that effect.

Tiny when compared to Libya’s 97 percent Sunni Muslim population, most Libyan Christians are Roman Catholics or followers of the Egypt-based Coptic Orthodox Church. Libya’s Coptic Orthodox, many of whom came to the country from Egypt (and have also fled back to the country), often run small businesses in urban locations such as Tripoli or Benghazi. Many Christians still in Libya are foreign laborers who have worked there since Qaddafi ruled the country.

Even before the revolution, Libya’s previous leader, the ever capricious Muhammar Qaddafi, was no fan of Christianity. Immediately following Qaddafi’s rise to power, he made sure to convert Tripoli’s Roman Catholic Cathedral into Tripoli’s Grand Mosque. In 2009, an Egyptian Copt was arrested after being accused of trying to convert Libyan Muslims to Christianity. Also, exemplifying Qaddafi’s eccentric rule, in November of the same year, the Libyan dictator threw an odd party in Italy, inviting hundreds of Italian women to a villa where he asked them to convert to Islam and derided Christianity. Later, when he sought Vatican diplomatic support, Qaddafi used Libya’s Christians as a bargaining chip. According to Reuters, Qaddafi tried to “woo the Vatican with promises of better conditions for the tiny Catholic community in Libya.”

Despite the late Libyan dictator’s anti-Christian rhetoric and behavior, the aftermath of his deposition has been even more detrimental for the small community.  At first, there was some hope that Libyan Christians could live successfully in Libya. In May of 2011, one Benghazi Copt told Reuters: “The revolutionaries are good to us. They are afraid for us more than their own people. There’s a lot of affection between us and Libyans.” Another June 2011 report by the U.S.-based evangelical Christian TV station the Christian Broadcasting Network told of Egyptian Christians fleeing to Libya in search of greater religious freedom. However, over a short period of time, such feelings have greatly diminished.

Starting at the end of 2012 and continuing until today, numerous Libyan elements — including militias and the government — have ratcheted up anti-Christian activities. On December 31, two Copts were killed and two were wounded by a bomb blast in the town of Dafniya, near Misrata. The bomb ripped through a church, leaving it heavily damaged. The culprits were not identified. In a March attack in Tripoli, an AK-47 wielding assailant fired at a Catholic priest. The priest survived the attempted assassination and his colleagues blamed Salafists for the attack.

The often restive eastern city of Benghazi, home to numerous radical Islamist groups, has also seen a spate of anti-Christian attacks. Many of them have particularly targeted Copts. On February 28, armed men struck a church in the city. According to Reuters, the attackers went about “assaulting two priests.” In mid-March the same church was attacked again by rifle-toting militiamen. During this attack no one was killed, but the structure was burned.

Earlier in February, a South Korean, American, South African, and Egyptian were held by Libyan authorities in Benghazi. They were accused of attempting to distribute Christian literature and of attempting to convert Libyan Muslims to Christianity. In an absurd twist, Hussein Bin Hmeid, described by some media organs as a “security official,” told Reuters: “Proselytizing is forbidden in Libya. We are a 100 percent Muslim country and this kind of action affects our national security.”  (Note: The statement came around five months after the deadly attack on the Benghazi diplomatic mission which killed U.S. Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans.)

Still, rumors of foreign Christians looking for converts continued in Benghazi.  On March 1, 48 Coptic Christians were detained by Libyan authorities on the charge that they had illegally entered Libya and were attempting to proselytize Libyan Muslims. Twenty of the Copts were later released.

However, as the story developed, it was revealed that those arrested had initially been taken prisoner by Libya Shield One, one of Benghazi’s most powerful Islamist militias. The numbers for those held captive due to being accused of proselytizing might have also increased from the original 48. On March 13 the Washington Post reported that “as many as 100 of others” may have been jailed by “Islamic militias.”

The detained men, including a priest, had their heads and mustaches shaved and were reportedly beaten and forced to curse the late Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III. They also suffered other forms of torture. The condition of these imprisoned Christians took another violent turn. One of the detained, an evangelical Christian named Ezzat Atallah, died three days after he was moved to a cell in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. His wife told reporters that Atallah had died from being tortured.

Beyond the obvious Islamist-based anti-Christian overtones, Libya could be using the imprisoned Egyptian Christians as leverage for other goals. According to the Egyptian paper Al Ahram, in exchange for the imprisoned Christians, the Libyan government had requested Libyan anti-revolution TV stations be shut down and Qaddafi family members living in Egypt handed over to authorities in Tripoli.

Attacks in Libya may also reflect a joint interest Libyan jihadists hold with their cohorts in Egypt. In Egypt, attacks against the Coptic community by Islamist radicals are a regular occurrence. Jihadist coordination may especially be the case since there has been significant crosspollination between Egyptian and Libyan Salafi-jihadi organizations.  Egyptian jihadists have even taken the lead in organizing training for a number of radical Islamist groups within Libya.  It would come as no surprise if they also viewed Libya as the perfect area to execute anti-Christian attacks.

Nevertheless, even if the Libyan government wanted to step in and thwart growing anti-Christian attacks, it is unlikely they have the will or the means. Their own well-publicized anti-Christian activities, combined with the armed power of Libyan Islamist groups, will likely be a continuing trend. Due to the quasi-anarchic conditions in Libya, the country makes for a perfect front for Islamists to target their perceived sectarian foes. Despite one Libyan priest’s urgings that attacks against Christians were a symptom of anarchic conditions and not part of a systematic plan to expel them from the country, Libya’s Christians will increasingly find themselves as targets.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage assembled from multiple images.)