Libyan Conflict Puts Christians in the Crosshairs

By Claire Evans

06/24/2020 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern)The vast deserts of Libya are mostly empty of Christianity. Pockets of underground Christians exist, but they are shrouded in secrecy. There is no opportunity within Libya for religious freedom. And yet, the country’s civil war includes a strong narrative regarding the persecution of Christians.

Libya is a nation of two rival domestic governments backed by competing regional foreign powers. Turkey supports the United Nations recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), and Egypt supports the opposing Libyan National Army (LNA). Last year, Turkey made clear that the Libyan conflict is one of their foreign policy priorities and consequently increased its military involvement.

This decision has not only made the civil war more complex, but has also put Christians across the three nations directly into the crosshairs of geopolitical maneuvering. Accusations of Islamic conquest and genocide toward Christians are frequently utilized by each of these nations, despite the authorities’ records of violating religious freedom. It is a strategy that brings only harm to Libyan, Turkish, and Egyptian Christians.

Christianity first came into the conflict’s crosshairs in early 2019. Many governments across the world recognized Turkey’s genocide of Armenian Christians a century earlier. Turkey has remained adamant in denying the genocide, despite the international and historic consensus saying otherwise. When Turkey increased its military involvement in Libya, the LNA responded by issuing a declaration recognizing the Armenian genocide.

“This announcement seems to have come out of left field,” reported the Armenian Weekly. “A seemingly benevolent act unveils a war-torn nation’s desperate ploy to hit Turkey where it hurts.”

This year, the LNA again recognized the Armenian genocide. Their latest statement read, “Turkey’s criminal actions against the Armenian people by burning, the deliberate killing, forced deportation, and other ugly acts contrary to all divine laws is a crime against humanity and it must be recognized.”

“Perhaps what it carried out yesterday by bombarding the city of Tarhuna [Libya] with missiles and drones, killing children, the elderly and women, destroying humanitarian convoys, food and medical aid, fuel tanks, bringing in mercenaries and supporting terrorists are other crimes added to a chain of Turkish crimes against people and confirms to the whole world the extent of Erdogan’s arrogance and his disregard for all international laws and norms,” continued the statement.

With the genocide of Christians now weaponized against Turkey, this type of language has become a key force in the conflict. Turkey’s powerful state-run media began churning out similar statements. For example, Turkey’s state-run Andalou Agency published an article taking aim at LNA leadership, saying that “these forces include groups led by military commanders who are sought by arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court, militias who have been accused of genocide, and rogue mercenaries.”

In another example, the Daily Sabah published articles reporting how “190 corpses had been found in morgues and mass graves south of Tripoli and the city of Tarhuna since June 5… (the GNA) is awaiting a UN report that exposes ‘crimes and genocides’ committed by Haftar’s militia (the LNA).” 

Meanwhile, Turkey has only increased its efforts at denying its role in the Armenian genocide. Last week, the High Advisory Board of the Turkish presidency gathered behind closed doors for five hours. When they emerged, it was with a statement regarding the Armenian genocide. “President Erdoğan stressed that the hostility seeds that were tried to be sown through distorted historical events would not be able to find the opportunity to flourish in the land of truth,” said the statement.

It continued, “During the meeting, comprehensive steps were discussed so as to prevent the Armenian lobby that plays politics with the events of 1915 in order to defame Turkey and our nation and also the propaganda made by countries through unrealistic allegations that manipulate the issue with political calculations.”

While Libya and Turkey exchanged barbs relating to genocide, Egypt and Turkey exchanged barbs relating to the Ottoman Empire. Since they back opposite sides in Libya, the two countries have found themselves increasingly at odds against each other. Christians in both countries are again caught in the middle.

This month marks the 567th anniversary of the Ottoman capture of what is now known as Istanbul. It was a conquest that transformed the capital of eastern Christianity into the capital for Islam. The Hagia Sophia stands as a symbolic reminder of this conquest. The Ottomans converted the church into a mosque, and while it now stands as a museum, Turkey has made clear its intentions of eventually reverting it into a mosque. It is an intention that has become further inflamed because of the Libyan conflict.

Egypt finds itself exasperated by Turkish military gains in neighboring Libya and is warning of its increased military involvement. Consequently, Egypt’s propaganda efforts are building momentum toward this possibility by aiming at Turkish history.

Recently, Egypt’s top Islamic body released a statement saying, “The Hagia Sophia was built as a church during the Byzantine period in AD 537 and it remained for 916 years until the Ottomans occupied Istanbul in 1453, turning the building into a mosque… The Turkish president hires mosques to get support from new electoral blocs when his popularity declines.”

It was a statement that ignores Egypt’s own history regarding Christian persecution, and which further solidified Libya as a proxy battleground between the two countries. As is common during such periods, both countries pressured their Christian communities to pledge allegiance to the ruling government. In other words, many Christian leaders understand that they cannot say no if asked. They also are sensitive to accusations from their own government of Christians creating “security issues” simply by existing.

In Egypt, the Orthodox Church issued a statement saying, “The Coptic Egyptian Orthodox Church is monitoring with growing interest the developments that the region is going through and the challenges facing the Egyptian state. The church announces its complete support for all the steps, measures and decisions that the state undertakes to protect its borders and defend the Egyptian national security.”

A parallel situation prevailed in Turkey. The future of the Hagia Sophia is always met with controversy, but the broader context of Libya created an additional urgency for controlling the narrative. To the dismay of many within the lay community, several church leaders issued statements supporting the conversion of the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. For example, the Armenian Patriarchate said that “a small part can be reserved for Christians… I think that kneeling believers are more appropriate than curious tourists who wander here and there taking pictures.”

Whether it is in relation to the Hagia Sophia or the Armenian genocide, one thing is clear: the Libyan conflict has brought regional religious freedom issues to the surface, both current and historical. It is a conflict that has implications for Christians across the region, and these implications will only grow as more Middle Eastern countries become entangled within Libya. Christians are placed into a situation where they cannot say no, where they cannot speak freely about their struggles. All because religious freedom accusations are now a tool of warfare.

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