Four 'Christian missionaries' arrested in Libya
Libyan authorities have arrested four foreign nationals in the eastern city of Benghazi on suspicion of being Christian missionaries. The arrests come as Libya celebrates two years since the start of the revolution that ousted Muammar Gaddafi.
One of the alleged missionaries held dual Swedish-US citizenship, Swedish authorities have confirmed. The others detained were from South Africa, Egypt and South Korea.
The arrested foreigners were reportedly interrogated before being handed over to Libyan intelligence authorities. They are currently being held in 'Preventative Security' – a parallel security body created during the 2011 war made up of several rebel brigades that fought in the conflict. With the general power vacuum in the region, it is unclear what charges the alleged missionaries would face if found guilty of evangelizing.
"They were arrested on Tuesday at a publishing house where they were printing thousands of books that called for conversion to Christianity," security official Hussein bin Hmeid told Reuters. Police reported finding 45,000 books, and said that another 25,000 had already been distributed.
"Proselytizing is forbidden in Libya. We are a 100 percent Muslim country and this kind of action affects our national security," Hmeid added.
At least 1 percent of the Libyan population is Coptic Christian, and there are small groups of other Christian denominations, such as Protestantism, present in major Libyan cities. The country's Christian communities consist almost exclusively of sub-Saharan immigrants and small numbers of Western expatriate workers.
Christian Catholics living in Libya attend Good Friday service at Saint Francis church ahead of Easter celebrations in central Tripoli (AFP Photo/Joseph Eid)
Libyan religious regulations come from the Gaddafi era, and have yet to be revised. Islam is the driving ideology in Libyan society, as 97 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. Gaddafi imposed Islamic law on every aspect of Libyan society and politics, while simultaneously opposing radical Islamist movements seeing it a political threat to his regime.
Non-Muslim faiths enjoy certain freedoms, despite the strict prohibitions against proselytizations. However, Libyan law currently limits the number of places of worship for each Christian denomination to one per city.
With the fall of Gaddafi, radical Islamist ideology has gained influence inside Libya, prompting many Christians to flee the country or hide their faith. Last year, the International Committee of the Red Cross was forced to suspend its activities in Benghazi after its offices were attacked. The aid group was accused of distributing Bibles and proselytizing.
'Nothing has been accomplished'
The arrests were announced on Saturday as thousands of people arrived in Tripoli and Benghazi to celebrate the second anniversary of the start of the revolution that ousted longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Security in the country has been tightened, most international flight have been suspended and the country's borders with Tunisia and Egypt were closed on Thursday for four days, until the celebrations are over.
Women wave Libyan flags during celebrations commemorating the second anniversary of the Feb. 17 revolution in Benghazi February 15, 2013. (Reuters/Esam Al-Fetori)
No special events have been officially planned, but the mood is highly festive: People are honking their cars, waving flags, setting off fireworks and holding candlelight vigils.
"We feel free, there is nothing better than feeling free, as you can see the celebration taking place is done by individuals' efforts, spontaneous celebrations, celebrations used to be funded by official budgets during the former regime," a celebrating Benghazi local told AP.
People dance as they mark the second anniversary of the country's revolution in Benghazi February 16, 2013. (Reuters/Esam Al-Fetori)
The anniversary of the uprising that lead to Gaddafi's fall in October 2011 comes amidst widespread disappointment with the policies of the new Libyan government.
“Nothing has been accomplished, no security, no infrastructure, no housing. It’s been two years,” activist Fathia Gadoura says. “When someone tells you they need a house and shelter and you give them handouts, that does not solve the problem. It just postpones it. We have heard of huge budgets being allocated but it seems there are no priorities. Instead there are serious mistakes and no accountability.”
A girl waves flags and balloons during celebrations commemorating the second anniversary of the Feb. 17 revolution in Benghazi February 15, 2013. (Reuters/Esam Al-Fetori)
Hundreds of Benghazi residents celebrate the 2nd anniversary of the Libyan revolution on February 15, 2013 in Benghazi. (AFP Photo/Abdullah Doma)
Libyans celebrate in Tripoli's landamark Martyrs square the upcoming second anniversary of the Libyan revolution on February 15, 2013. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Turika)