BY FREDRICK NZWILI ©2014 Religion News Service
Church leaders in Libya remain hopeful that
Christians in the mostly Muslim country will be allowed to practice their
faith, even as the country appears to be moving towards 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, and increased Islamist influence in countries
engulfed by the Arab Spring revolution.
Libya 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 arbitrarily arrested, 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
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, the Rev. 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 are also 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.
With increasing calls for an Islamic
constitution, church leaders have sought the government’s assurance of
religious freedom for Christians, according to the Rev. 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 in a telephone interview,
explaining that Christians in Libya are free to worship, but may not seek
converts or evangelize.
Christians here, as in other countries where the
Arab Spring swept autocratic governments out of power, had 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, though the country’s Islamist prime minister announced
his resignation Thursday (Jan. 9).
At Islamic University in Uganda, Sheikh Hamid
Byamugenzi, a religious studies lecturer, pointed out that it was evident
Christians in these countries are being harassed.
“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
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