Christianity in Libya threatened as Islamists grow in strength

March 1, 2013 by  
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The “Arab Spring” has not brought religious freedom to LibyaLibya, February 27, 2013: When the “Arab Spring” reached Libya and led to the overthrow of long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi, some commentators heralded the advent of religious freedom in the overwhelmingly Muslim country.

There were some early signs of hope. Islamists fared much less well than anticipated in the country’s first general election since the revolution, taking just 17 of the 80 seats available to political parties. The National Forces Alliance (NFA), a coalition of broadly liberal and secular parties, meanwhile, won almost half.

And while, under the draft constitution, Islam is the state religion and sharia the principal source of legislation, a measure of freedom is granted to non-Muslims to practise their beliefs; discrimination on religious grounds with regard to legal, political and civil rights is outlawed. Some of the restrictions imposed by the Gaddafi regime have also been relaxed.

But a number of recent incidents have seen Christians and Christian targets coming under attack, and the future of the Church in the country looks more threatened than ever before.

The Libyan Church is composed almost entirely of expatriates, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, Indiaand the Philippines; there are very few indigenous believers, all converts from Islam. Before the revolution there were around 100,000 Christians inLibya, but many thousands fled when the uprising against Gaddafi turned violent.

Now, more are leaving amid opposition, Islamist threats and violent attacks. It is becoming more and more apparent that Christianity is not welcome in the new Libya.

On 12 February, four foreign Christians, a Swedish-American, Egyptian, South African and South Korean, were arrested on suspicion of proselytising and distributing Christian literature. Police said that they found 45,000 books in their possession and another 25,000 had already been distributed.

Evangelising Muslims is a crime in Libya that is potentially punishable by death. This was the case under Gaddafi, and the law has not been amended in the apparently liberated Libya. The arrest of the four foreigners on proselytism charges is the first known case of its kind since the 2011 revolution.

Security official Hussein Bin Hmeid said:

Proselytising is forbidden in Libya. We are a 100% Muslim country and this kind of action affects our national security.

“Threat to national security” is a pretext often used by Islamic regimes to justify restricting religious freedom and Christianity in particular.


A church in TripoliIn addition to such official opposition, Christians have been targeted in a number of violent incidents.

On 30 December, two Christians were killed in a bomb blast at an Egyptian church building near Misrata.

Shots were fired at – but narrowly missed – the minister of Tripoli’s Greek Orthodox church last May. Then in September, the church was broken into and vandalised. Tombs at an Italian Christian cemetery in Tripoli have been regularly desecrated.

The International Committee of the Red Cross last year had to suspend its activities in most of the country after its offices in Benghazi and Misrata were bombed. The aid organisation was accused by some in Libya of distributing Bibles and proselytising.


The increasing threat to the Church in Libya is set against a backdrop of strengthening Islamic militancy and political Islam in the country.

Islamic militancy is building particularly in the eastern part of the country, where several international agencies and diplomatic missions have been attacked, most notably the US consulate in Benghazi on 11 September 2012.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party (JCP) took fewer seats than expected in the first general election, they have since been gathering support. The other 120 seats in the General National Assembly were contested by independent candidates, and of those elected, around 60 have since joined the JCP caucus, giving the group considerable influence. It was able to play kingmaker in the selection of a prime minister.

The Brotherhood in Libya is different from that in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, where a strong base of support has been built up over decades. The JCP was founded only a few months before the election and is therefore playing catch-up. But it is now attracting hundreds of members in places where other parties have few, and is represented on many local councils.

Omar Sallak, a JCP councillor in Benghazi, anticipates a slow rise for the party. He said, “We may win control eventually, but first we all have to work together.”

Commenting on developing events in Libya, Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund, said:

It can be no coincidence that as Islamists are exerting more influence in Libya, both through violent and political means, the Church is under increasing attack. Before the revolution, expatriate churches had been free to worship largely without harassment, but now, foreign Christians are fleeing in fear of their lives as it becomes more and more evident that they are not welcome. What will become of the Church in Libya, which has so few indigenous believers? The Arab Spring has not brought religious freedom to the Middle East and North Africa. Christianity, which has such a rich history in the region, is being increasingly stifled and may be crushed to death if no intervention is made to protect its future.

– barnabas edit

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