By BosNewsLife African and Middle East Services with additional reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
TRIPOLI/CAIRO (BosNewsLife)– There is concern about Libya’s tiny Christian community amid reports that hundreds of anti-government protesters have been killed as demonstrations spread to the northern African nation’s capital Tripoli.
“It seems that a lot of people in that area want change. The issue is: what kind of change do they want, and what kind of change will come?”, said Paul Estabrooks, a minister-at-large for the respected advocacy and aid group Open Doors, which has close contacts with Christians facing persecution, including in Libya.
He spoke before witnesses said that in Benghazi, the eastern Libyan city where the protests started, some in the security services switched sides and were now taking up the anti-government banner of the protesters.
There have been similar scenes, hundreds of kilometers away, including in the capital Tripoli. At least over 200 people have been killed in clashes with feared security forces, according to rights group Human Rights Watch.
Yet, with communications difficult, Estabrooks said it remains unclear to what extend Christians were actively pushing for the overthrow of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who was to appear on state television early Tuesday as his faltering 40-year regime showed more signs of crumbling.
PRESIDENTS STEP DOWN
As in Tunisia and Egypt, where presidents stepped down, anti-government forces have rejected offers of reform as too little too late. In Bahrain, Yemen and Jordan, rulers have tried to meet some of the protesters’ demands but it remains unclear what effect they will have as calls for change spread like wildfire through North Africa and the Middle East.
Libya however is also facing Islamic extremism and analysts have suggested it remains unknown whether a new leadership would allow more religious freedom. “The chances are even slimmer there for change,” than in neighboring Egypt or Tunisia, where protests toppled leaders, Estabrooks told broadcaster Mission Network News. “The only thing might be in a more democratic type of government, an opportunity for minorities to be better protected.”
Libya, a heavily Islamic country, currently ranks number 25 on the Open Doors’ annual World Watch List of 50 nations known for their reported persecution of Christians. North Korea tops the list at number 1. While there are no laws that explicitly provide for religious freedom, the country adheres to Islamic law and all citizens are Sunni Muslims ‘by definition’, according to rights activists.
It is prohibited to evangelize to Muslims or distribute Arabic scriptures, according to Open Doors investigators. Small Christian communities are reportedly mainly containing expatriates. Several countries, including the Netherlands, are trying to evacuate them, but for Libyan Christians staying behind live will remain difficult, according to rights activists.
CHRISTIANS FORCED UNDERGROUND
Estabrooks said devoted Christians, including former Muslims, are forced to operate mostly underground. Christian converts from Islam, he added, are often harassed or arrested by the police with no legal recourse. “Because their communities are small, it’s perhaps less likely for them to become public about their attitude and desire for change.”
He said Open Doors had urged its Christian supporters “to pray is to ask God to give them the opportunity to use this situation in order to share His love with others and to be able to be more open about their faith.”
Despite the difficulties, there is “increasing openness to the Gospel” and a growing demand for Arabic Bibles, well-informed Open Doors said in a statement on the situation of Christians in Libya.