Egyptian Copts are up in arms following the suspicious death last Monday of a Coptic Christian in a Libyan prison. The man was part of a group of Egyptian Coptic shopkeepers who have been living in Libya for the last few years and who were arrested by a Benghazi militia several days prior for allegedly “proselytizing”.
On February 26, in Benghazi, a militia of Islamic extremists arrested several dozen Coptic Egyptian nationals believed to be proselytizing. A video uploaded to YouTube shows several men with shaved heads sitting on the floor in a cramped room. In it, a militiaman says that these men are Copt shopkeepers from the Djriadah market in Benghazi who were trying to convince Muslims to convert to Christianity. Several pamphlets and posters featuring Coptic Christian religious figures, including Shenouda III of Alexandria, the recently deceased head of the Orthodox Coptic church, can be seen strewn across a table.
0’44’’: The man holding the camera asks: “When did you catch them?” “This afternoon, we lured them here”. (…) 0’54”: “People started complaining about them. The Muslim Egyptian shopkeepers told us they were cornering the market. They rent for extremely high sums spaces that are worth barely 1,000 to 3,000 Guineh [between 600 and 1,800 euros]. Their only goal is to capture the entire market.”
0’1’8”: Another militiaman explains: “They’re not here for business, they’re here to impose their religion”. A man to his left asks: “About how many are there?” “Around 100”, another man answers. “Did they admit that they were on a proselytizing campaign, or did they tell you this was merely a personal matter?” In response: “These men are not pure - they even denied that these materials were theirs”. He adds: “We caught one of them inside his shop. When we asked him what these materials were doing in his establishment, he replied that they did not belong to him. If he were honest, he would have admitted he was Christian. He has a cross tattooed on his hand.”
At 2’15”: The militiaman states: “We were told that one of them regularly went out of his way to criticize the Prophet, claiming that he had married nine children, etc…” (…) “We heard some of them say, ‘Extremists don’t belong here, and Christians are welcome’. They are waging a war against Islam”. (…)
Tensions increased following the death of one of the detainees on Monday after he was transferred to Tripoli. According to his lawyer, his jailers tortured him to death. Dozens of protesters came out on Tuesday in front of the Libyan embassy in Cairo, where they burned a Libyan flag. In response, on Thursday evening, angry individuals burned down Benghazi’s Coptic church. The church had already been attacked in late February, and a priest and his colleague assaulted.
The Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs announced on Tuesday that 55 of the detained Copts were to be freed soon. Four others, who had been sent to Tripoli, have already been freed and were sent back to Egypt over the weekend. He also announced that he would send a parliamentary delegation and Coptic representatives to Tripoli to investigate the torture accusations.
Since the fall of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the Christian minority in Libya has been living in fear of the rising Islamic extremist movement. Four foreigners -- an Egyptian, a South African, a South Korean, and a Swede, also suspected of proselytizing -- were arrested in mid-February in Benghazi.
Libya is home to the second largest Egyptian migrant population in the world after Saudi Arabia. According to the Egyptian Coptic church, 50,000 Copts currently live in Libya.
“The militiamen waited for them outside of a church"
Mina Karas is a member of the “Young Coptic Christian Front”, which for the last few days has been organizing protests in front of the Libyan embassy in Cairo to demand the freedom of the Copts held in Libya.
"We were able to meet with the Libyan Ambassador to Egypt [on March 14] and he told us that he only knew about the four Copts from Benghazi who had been sent to Tripoli [before being sent back to Egypt] through official channels in the Libyan capital. He further explained that he had no information regarding the hundred or so Copts detained by the fundamentalist militias in Benghazi. I’m referring to roughly a hundred because this is the number given by the militiamen themselves, but is this even the right number? The ambassador further asked us to provide him with a list of the detainees so he could carry out some research on them — yet this is a list of names that even we have a hard time determining with any precision.
According to the four detainees who were released and went back to Egypt, in order to kidnap such a large number of Copts, the militia waited for them outside a church. Several detainees also told the lawyer of the deceased that they were tortured and humiliated. The militiamen shaved their heads [as can be seen on the video] and then tried to remove the crosses tattooed on the men’s bodies by burning them. [Editor's Note: FRANCE 24 was not able to verify this claim through independent sources, but the militiamen do mention these tattoos in the video. Most Copts have small crosses tattooed on their bodies.]
We don’t know why some individuals were transferred to Tripoli, nor do we know what happened to the others. We are outraged by the attitude of the Egyptian authorities, who took a very long time to get involved. They were arrested three weeks ago now, and the Egyptian ambassador in Libya did not try to intervene to try to obtain their freedom, nor did he even ask for any explanations from the Libyan authorities.
The fact that these men were arrested with religious books and objects on them does not in the least prove they were proselytizing. And even if this were the case, I don’t see what the problem is — after all, Libya, like the other Arab countries that underwent revolutions, is supposed to have gotten rid of dictatorship in favor of democracy. And, in democratic countries like those of Europe, Muslims have the right to openly promote their religion without being in the least inconvenienced."
“I never saw any Copts spreading propaganda in Benghazi”
Mahamed Zarroug is a blogger for Libyablog.org, a platform created by FRANCE 24 and RFI. He lives in Benghazi.
"The relationship between Libyans and Coptic Egyptians in Benghazi has always been very good. In Benghazi, there are several churches, namely a Greek Orthodox church, a [now vacant] cathedral, and a Coptic church. I had never heard of attacks on these religious venues before the events of the last few weeks.
Nor had I seen Copts spreading propaganda at the market or in other public forums to convince Muslims to convert. In any case, they should be allowed to practice their religion in our country in complete safety. I am saddened by what happened to the Copts in Benghazi. It does not reflect the tolerant spirit of the inhabitants of this city."