BY AIDAN CLAY
In the following video, Egyptian Christians sit hunched over on the floor of a Libyan detention center, their heads shaved as if their sentences have already been determined. Sources claim some of the Christians seen in the video were tortured and that their crosses, traditionally tattooed on the wrists of Coptic Christians in Egypt, were burned off with acid. Their crime: allegedly sharing their faith with Muslims and distributing Christian literature.
The video moves on to show their interrogators, militiamen with long beards who appear to be Salafis—a radical Muslim group that follows the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam found in Saudi Arabia. The cameraman then zooms in on the materials that got the Christians into their predicament. Spread out across a table are Bibles, prayer books, and pictures of Jesus, Mary, and saints.
“Who dare bring this material into Libya?” asks an interrogator, having already assumed that the Christian literature would be used to evangelize Libyans. Shouts of “Allah Akbar” echo around the room.
“This is a very serious incident, in which Egyptian citizens were arrested on the mere suspicion [of proselytizing] and tortured while in detention,” said Pachomios, the Coptic Archbishop of Beheira, Matrouh and Libya.
Penalty is Death
What is happening in Libya? Four Christian foreigners, including a South African, South Korean, Egyptian, and a Swede with a US passport, were arrested in Benghazi on February 10. Three days later, two more Christians from Egypt were arrested, one of whom, identified as Sherif Ramses, was reportedly tortured. And, three days after that, a seventh Christian, also from Egypt, was arrested. Yet, that was only the beginning of Libya’s escalating persecution of Christians.
On February 27, at least 48 Christians from Egypt—including those shown in the video—were arrested, with some news agencies placing the number at closer to 100. On top of that, a Coptic Church in Benghazi was attacked and two priests were assaulted by militants in early March. The country’s sudden persecution of Christians has led some to question whether the ‘new’ Libya has truly been liberated from the former tyranny of Muammar Gaddafi’s oppressive regime, or if one tyranny has simply been replaced by another, this time led by radical Islamists.
Even rights activists in Libya condemned the Christians’ actions. “[Proselytizing] is disrespectful,” said Bilal Bettamer, a so-called ‘human rights’ lawyer in Benghazi. “You can’t just spread Christianity. The maximum penalty is the death penalty. It’s a dangerous thing to do.”
Libyan security official Hussein Bin Hmeid shared similar concerns, condoning the persecution of Christians: “Proselytizing is forbidden in Libya. We are a 100% Muslim country and this kind of action affects our national security,” he said.
The Islamist Threat
While the liberation of Libya from Gaddafi’s rule has brought positive changes to the country, including greater freedoms for the Libyan people, there remains an overshadowing threat of rising Islamic extremism. In Libya, like in Egypt, and several Middle Eastern countries, Islamists have gained significant political influence following the country’s revolution, and laws against proselytizing and other unauthorized Christian activities are being enforced to an extent never seen under former dictatorships. The Islamist agenda is clear: to establish an Islamic state based on the principles of Sharia law. The ramifications of that agenda in Libya are perhaps clearer now than ever before following February’s persecution of Christians.
There have long been warning signs, however, that Libya was headed toward a crackdown resulting in the persecution of Christians. In December, two Egyptian Christians were killed in a bomb blast at a Coptic church in the Mediterranean town of Dafniya. Christian graves have routinely been vandalized since the country’s civil war ignited. And, more recently, Catholic nuns living in three communities in eastern Libya left their congregations following increasing threats by Islamists.
There were as many as 100,000 Christians in Libya before the country’s revolution, according to Father Dominique Rezeau, a priest in Tripoli. “Now only a few thousand remain.”
Islamists are growing bolder with every new arrest of a Christian for proselytizing. More Christians will be accused and more churches will be attacked unless officials intervene and uphold the religious freedoms of every citizen and foreigner living in the country. It appears, however, that officials are instead cowering to Islamist demands and pressure. Sadly, the recent arrests may only be the beginning of a wide scale crackdown against Christianity in Libya. — International Christian Concern