A special Report by ICC
03/29/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – The recent death of an Egyptian Evangelical Christian under dubious circumstances, along with increasing arrests and detention of Christians, confirms the rising threat of Islamist extremism and Christian persecution in Libya.
Ezzat Atalla, the Egyptian Christian who was found dead earlier this month, was held and tortured by Islamic militants in Benghazi for 11 days in two different places before he was transferred to Tripoli, where his wife was able to meet him. When they met, she saw signs of torture on his body and he confirmed to her that he was beaten, hung by ropes and lashed.
Atalla was arrested last month, along with four other Egyptian Evangelical Christians, on suspicion of seeking converts among natives in the predominantly Muslim nation. He had lived in Libya for more than 10 years, running a mobile phone business, while his wife operated a children’s nursery in Benghazi.
There is a cloud of uncertainty surrounding the circumstances of his death. Naguib Guebrayel, a Coptic Christian lawyer who heads the Egyptian Union for Human Rights, told AFP that he “died after being tortured with other detainees.” Contradicting that statement, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official said that he suffered from diabetes, as well as heart ailments and probably died from natural causes.
But whether he died under duress or not, there is little doubt that he was tortured while imprisoned, without any trial or conviction, which itself contradicts the Libyan Foreign Ministry’s recent call for “all Libyan citizens to respect those from friendly and sister countries living in Libya and to respect their beliefs.”
Atalla’s death is a fearful indicator of the extent that the new Libya under Islamist influence is willing to go to, in order to protect its political and religious ambition of a nation under Sharia law. After his funeral in Egypt, his wife is returning to Libya, but fears for her life and the lives of other Christians in the region.
When news of his death reached Egypt, scores of Christians protested against it and the arrest of as many as 100 others suspected of proselytizing in Benghazi. When news of the protests in Egypt reached Libya, it was not taken lightly and prompted a swift reaction. A church used by Egyptian Christians in Benghazi was torched by assailants who were angry about the Christian protests in Egypt, where the Libyan flag was allegedly set on fire.
According to The Washington Post, Abdel-Salam al-Barghathi, a security official in Benghazi, blamed Christians for the attack on the church. He had stopped some of the assailants from doing further damage to the church, but said, “These incidents will take place once and twice if the reactions on the other side [Egypt] continue like this.”
In response to the increasing arrests of Christians, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry intervened and secured the release of 55 Egyptians in early March, who were also suspected of proselytizing. According to The Washington Post, 35 of them were deported for illegally entering the country, while 20 were cleared to stay in Libya.
However, four foreigners – Swedish-American, a South Korean, a South African and an Egyptian – remain in prison after being arrested in Benghazi on Feb.10. They were accused of printing and distributing Bible pamphlets in the city and are being investigated for alleged espionage and proselytizing.
The targeted Christian persecution in Libya is marked by a sudden rise in arrests and detention of Christians, which has coincided with the rising political influence of extremists in the country. Laws against proselytizing and other Christian activities are being enforced in a way that was never done before, even under the Gaddafi’s oppressive regime.
As Aidan Clay, ICC’s Middle-East Regional Manager, says, “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 mass arrests of Christians.”
In 2011, the fall of Gaddafi was quickly followed by the rise of Islamic extremism. In the absence of an organized police force, stable military and reliable judiciary, Islamic extremists have been emboldened to target Christians for persecution and to act with impunity, carrying out their program of establishing a Libyan state under strict Sharia law.
With the rise of Islamic extremism to replace Gaddafi, improvement is unlikely, given that the government itself appears to be intimidated by the extremists. Clay also says, “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.”
As it stands, Libyan hopes for a more liberated future are increasingly threatened by the growing influence of extremists in the nation, whose political ambitions for the country have made Christians in Libya more vulnerable to persecution than they have ever been before.