By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos and reports from the region
TRIPOLI/CAIRO (BosNewsLife)– Minority Christians in Egypt and Libya faced potential violence Wednesday, September 12, after American Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three staff members were killed when gunmen attacked the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi to protest a film deemed offensive to Islam.
Christians expressed concerns amid reports that late Tuesday’s killings were carried out by several dozen militants from the Islamist group Ansar al Sharia who used automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, then set it on fire.
There were reports that the ambassador and colleagues were killed when they tried to evacuate other staff members.
(Watch here the latest footage, story continues after this).
Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, a 21-year career U.S. foreign service officer and viewed as one of the most experienced American envoys in the region, had taken up his post in Libya in May.
“I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens,” said U.S. President Barack Obama in a statement, that was also sent to BosNewsLife News Center.
“On a personal note, Chris was a courageous and exemplary representative of the United States,” added the president. “Throughout the Libyan revolution, he selflessly served our country and the Libyan people at our mission in Benghazi.”
The president stressed that as ambassador in Tripoli he “supported Libya’s transition to democracy”.
(Watch here more on Stevens mission, story continues after this).
Obama said, “His legacy will endure wherever human beings reach for liberty and justice. I am profoundly grateful for his service to my Administration, and deeply saddened by this loss.”
The attack by militants, who observers said were inspired by the al-Qaeda terror group, followed the start of violent protests in Cairo, where an angry Muslim mob scaled the walls of the U.S. embassy, tore up an American flag and replaced it with an Islamic banner.
The demonstrators there – mainly ultraconservative Islamists – continued their protest action through the early hours of Wednesday, September 12, witnesses said.
These protests coincided with the 11th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
With violence spreading, Coptic activists told media they planned to hold a vigil to protest the anti-Islam film that they say sparked the violence outside the US missions in Egypt and Libya.
In a statement, the Maspero Youth Union (MYU) and the Coalition of Coptic Egypt condemned “all sorts of contempt or disdain against any religion, as well as to the sowing of sedition between people who embrace different religions.”
The MYU said it would be “holding a vigil tonight (Wednesday) in front of the US embassy in Cairo to protest against the film that insults Islam and the Prophet Mohammed.”
The “Innocence of Muslims” Movie, which was posted on the video sharing YouTube website in English and later in Arabic, depicts Prophet Muhammad as a caricature. It was produced by California-based Israeli film maker Sam Bacile, who reportedly said that Islam is a “cancer.”
The film has also been promoted by Florida-based Christian Pastor Terry Jones, who burned a Koran, deemed a holy book by Muslims, in his church sparking deadly clashes.
Bacile was not available for comment Wednesday, September 13, amid reports he went into hiding following the protests in Egypt and Libya.
There was concern that the film would put pressure on Egypt’s Christian community, which makes up about 10 percent of the country’s 82-million population.
Copts have already complained of discrimination and have been the targets of numerous sectarian attacks since a popular uprising ousted president Hosni Mubarak and brought Islamists to power.
Dozens of Christians were killed and hundreds injured since last year, for instance in demonstrations against the destruction of churches.
The discussion about the short film has also raised questions as to how far freedom of expression should go in an era of globalization.
BosNewsLife News Agency posted the film on its website saying viewers should be able to decide for themselves.
(Watch here the latest footage, story continues after this. Viewer discretion advised).
U.S. President Obama has come under fire from Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney who said the Obama administration had tried to appease Islamic extremists who should have been condemned instead.
Romney said a statement issued by the American Embassy in Cairo before the deaths criticizing an anti-Islamic video was “akin to an apology” and a “severe miscalculation.”
“The first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation, and apology for American values is never the right course,” Romney said while campaigning for the upcoming presidential elections.
Democrats accused him of “politicizing an international crisis.”
Omaba said, “The brave Americans we lost represent the extraordinary service and sacrifices that our civilians make every day around the globe. As we stand united with their families, let us now redouble our own efforts to carry their work forward.”
(Watch President Obama’s statement here, story continues after this)
The president urged prayers at this time of crisis. “Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers. They exemplified America’s commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives.”
President Obama said he had “directed” his administration “to provide all necessary resources to support the security” of U.S. personnel in Libya, “and to increase security” at U.S. diplomatic posts around the globe.
“While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants,” Obama said.
Those words did apparently little to prevent Copts of holding their planned peaceful rally in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo.
In a statement, the MYU also said that “the Copts who took part in the production of the film in question are not representative of mainstream Coptic patriotism… these Copts neither represent Christianity or the Church, nor the Copts of the diaspora.”
Priest Hani Bakhoum, secretary of the Patriarch of the Coptic Catholic Church Anba Antonius Nagib, reportedly told the weekly al Watani newspaper that members of the Patriarchs and Bishops Council of the Catholic Church “totally denounce all forms of disdain to religious symbols, a practice that contradicts the teachings of the Holy Bible which advocates love and respect for all.”
The Vatican expressed concerns about the future of Christians in the region amid the film controversy.
“Profound respect for the beliefs, texts, outstanding figures and symbols of the various religions is an essential precondition for the peaceful coexistence of peoples,” said Vatican Press Office Director Federico Lombardi following the killing of the ambassador.
“The serious consequences of unjustified offense and provocations against the sensibilities of Muslim believers are once again evident in these days, as we see the reactions they arouse, sometimes with tragic results, which in their turn nourish tension and hatred, unleashing unacceptable violence,” he said.
He stressed that the pope would travel with a “message of dialogue and respect for all believers of different religions” to Lebanon, amid widening concerns among Christians in the Middle East about their future.
Thousands have fled trouble spots in Egypt, Libya as well as other countries such as Iraq and Iran.