Libyan Christians cast anxious eye at religious freedom

A Catholic priest converses with an Anglican pastor at the Christ the King Anglican Cathedral in Tripoli. The number of Anglicans is reportedly growing in Libya. (RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili)

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WASHINGTON (RNS)—Church leaders in Libya remain hopeful Christians in the mostly Muslim country will be allowed to practice their faith, even as the country appears to be moving toward Shariah law.

In December, Libya’s General National Congress voted to make Shariah the source of all legislation and institutions. The vote came amid international concerns over the diminishing Christian populations in North Africa and the Middle East, along with increased Islamist influence in countries engulfed by the Arab Spring revolution.

Arbitrary arrests, killings, forced conversions

libya map400Libya has undergone a two-year transition since 2011 when demonstrations toppled Moammar Gadhafi. Before the revolution, Christians were granted religious freedom, but with the change of power, they have been arrested arbitrarily, attacked, killed and forced by the Islamist groups to convert to Islam.

In September, two Christians were killed in the Derna District of northeastern Libya after they refused forced conversion. St. Mark’s Coptic Church in Benghazi was attacked twice in 2013, according to the Barnabas Fund, a British charity supporting Christians in Muslim-majority countries.

A prominent group, Ansar al-Shariah, which is linked to the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, has accused some lawmakers of being un-Islamic.

But as a special committee embarked on reviewing the nation’s laws, Celso Larracas, a priest at St. Francis Catholic Church in Tripoli, said only a small number of Libyans are pushing for Shariah, or Islamic law.

“They are insisting on it, but I think many Libyans want to co-exist with foreigners,” Larracas said.

Libya’s Christian population is composed mainly of foreigners working in the country. It has a small indigenous Christian community as well. There were about 300,000 Coptic Christians and 80,000 Roman Catholics before the fall of Gadhafi. There also are an unknown number of Anglicans and Pentecostals. Christian groups run hospitals and education centers open to all faiths.

Although Christians face attacks, Libya relies on their professional expertise. It must vouchsafe its place in the international community, too, according to the priest.

“The foreigners are doing most of the professional work, especially around oil,” said Larracas.

A call for assurances

With increasing calls for an Islamic constitution, church leaders have sought the government’s assurance of religious freedom for Christians, said Vasihar Eben Baskaran, a priest at Christ the King Anglican Church in Tripoli.

“They have assured us that we shall be free to worship, even with the new law,” Baskaran said, explaining Christians in Libya are free to worship, but may not seek converts or evangelize.

Christians in Libya, as in other countries where the Arab Spring swept autocratic governments out of power, hoped for more freedom, but this has not been the case.

In Egypt, Coptic churches have been burned or bombed, since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011. In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring started, Christians face harassment and discrimination. Since the ouster of President Zine Abedine Ben Ali in 2011, the country has moved toward an Islamist direction, although the country’s Islamist prime minister announced his resignation Jan. 9.

At Islamic University in Uganda, Sheikh Hamid Byamugenzi, a religious studies lecturer, pointed out it was evident Christians in these countries are being harassed.

Need to coexist

“The groups that have come to power or led the revolution want to see much space given to practice of Islam,” he said. “But I think they need to have discussions among themselves to agree how to co-exist with others.”

In Algeria, professor Larbi Djeradi, a Muslim who teaches at the University of Mostaganem, said intolerance toward non-Muslims in North Africa and the Middle East is a product of political manipulation.

“The perception of Shariah in the Western world is absolutely negative and its comprehension by radicalized Muslims is negative,” Djeradi said.

He termed the Arab Spring a momentary political disruption that “has its place in the logic of the dynamic of history of the region.”

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