TRIPOLI, LIBYA (BosNewsLife)– Libya’s minority Christians were among those facing danger Saturday, March 19, as the international community began enforcing a no fly zone over the predominantly Sunni Muslim nation to halt attacks by forces loyal to embattled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
(ADDS U.S. FORCES ATTACKING GADHAFI TROOPS, MORE DETAILS).
>U.S launching missiles, French plane strikes military vehicle
>Libyan Christians among those facing danger
>Battles rage between rebels and Gadhafi loyalists
>Groups praying for churches in area
By BosNewsLife Middle East and Africa Services with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos at BosNewsLife News Center
The United States said American forces launched missiles against Gadhafi’s forces late Saturday, March 19. Hours earlier a French official said a French fighter jet fired on a Libyan military vehicle, in a first reported strike in the international campaign to enforce a no-fly zone.
French defense ministry spokesman Thierry Burkhard told reporters the strike was reported around 1645 UTC on Saturday, March 19. Burkhard said the target was confirmed as a military vehicle, but it was not immediately clear what kind.
As violence spread mission group Arab World Ministries said Libya’s often tiny churches, including evangelical home churches, need “a spirit of boldness in this chaotic time” amid concerns over the future of the troubled North African country.
It was not immediately clear what impact the fighting would have on Christians, who under Gadhafi face harassment at times or are banned from sharing their faith with Muslims, missionaries and rights activists have said.
Additionally, Christian television channel Sat-7 has reported that its broadcast signal has been blocked by the Libyan government since protests began last month against Gadhafi’s four-decade rule.
Another Christian broadcaster, ‘Heralding Christ Jesus’ Blessings’ (HCJB) experienced similar problems but said it still reaching Christians and others in Libya through a satellite system from Europe. “The satellite provider we have from Europe beaming into North Africa has been able to stay on the air,” said HCJB Global President Wayne Pederson. “Other satellite signals have been blocked, but the Lord has enabled us, for our radio signal, to continue 24/7 into the households of North Africa and the Middle East at this time.”
Before the latest developments, Arab World Ministries already announced it has asked believers around the world to pray for Libya’s small Christian community, comprising about 2.5 percent of the North African country’s mainly Sunni Muslim population of roughly 6.6 million people.
Christians were also believed to be among those hiding in shelters in Benghazi, amid reports of relentless fighting in the area.
France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy said allied warplanes were flying over Libya to enforce the no-fly zone and protect civilians in the city of Benghazi, where forces loyal to leader Moammar Gadhafi have attacked rebels trying to bring down his government.
Sarkozy spoke after representatives of the United Nations, European Union, Arab and Western powers gathered for an emergency summit on the Libyan crisis.
In Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, witnesses said French war planes roared overhead after sustained shelling and strikes by Gadhafi’s forces.
Earlier, a warplane was seen coming down in a residential area of Benghazi with flames emerging from the rear fuselage, triggering celebratory gunfire from the rebels.
The pilot ejected from the aircraft, which was identified as a Russian-built MiG-23 fighter as used by the Libyan air force. However, a number of military units defected to the rebellion soon after the revolt broke out, observers said. The government denied it lost an airplane.
U.S. President Barack Obama said the United States has also joined a coalition with its European and Arab partners to take action in Libya.
Obama spoke to reporters during his visit to Brazil. He said the allied coalition’s “resolve is clear,” and that all members are “prepared to act with urgency.”
As fighting continued, Christian groups expressed concern about Libya’s future. “We don’t know how this is going to end up, but we have a window of opportunity now for a few weeks, months–maybe years–that we can go in with the Gospel with this new-found freedom,” Pederson said, speaking about devoted Christians. “However, we’ve gone from dictatorship to anarchy, and we don’t know where it’s going to end.”
“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?”, added 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.
Heavily Islamic Libya currently ranks number 25 on the annual Open Doors’ 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 have been trying to evacuate them, but Libyan Christians staying behind faced tense moments Saturday, March 19.
Yet, Christian groups say the church is “silently growing” across the Middle East and North Africa, including in Libya.