CHRISTIANS in Libya are bracing themselves for a tense Easter after attacks on churches, the arrests of evangelists and the growing confidence of jihadist militias.
Tripoli’s Anglican Church of Christ the King cancelled its traditional Palm Sunday parade last weekend and is keeping its doors closed for Easter Sunday mass tomorrow.
“Better not to let us attract attention from bad elements,” said its vicar, Reverend Vasihar Baskaran. “We’re not cancelling any services but we want to create an atmosphere where we don’t distract people.”
His congregation of British, African and North American worshippers has been shaken by a gun attack by a uniformed militiaman on nearby St Francis Catholic church.
St Francis is also going ahead with tomorrow’s Easter mass, but since the attack it has closed its gates except for services.
The priest of Tripoli’s Greek Orthodox church was last year targeted by a sniper outside his house, and has since locked up and returned to Greece.
Libya has not acknowledged its Christian population, but the rise of jihadist militias suppressed by former dictator Muammar Gaddafi has seen attacks on foreign worshippers.
Earlier this month, militants set fire to the Egyptian Coptic church of St Mark in Benghazi, following the bombing of Misrata’s Coptic church in January that killed two worshippers.
St Mark’s church is now a blackened ruin, its interior a mass of charred timbers, smashed stained glass and rotting fruit from the ransacked kitchen. Its priest was inside the building when it was torched, saved only by the fast action of Muslim neighbours who risked their lives to run into the building to rescue him.
Meanwhile, the defence ministry’s Office of Protective Security, tasked with protecting the culture of Libya’s Muslims, continues to hold four foreigners accused of proselytism.
The four, a Swedish American, Egyptian, South African and South Korean, were arrested in February after they began distributing bibles and Christian tracts.
Commander of the protective security unit in Benghazi, Abdul Salam Barghathi, said the four will shortly be released as a “diplomatic” courtesy, but warned his officers will act to prevent the spreading of Christianity.
“Libya is 100 per cent Muslim, we don’t have Christians and Jews, and nobody will accept any other religions,” he said.
Growing tensions have seen Catholics evacuate the 100-year old Congregation of the Holy Family of Sapoleto monastery and the Franciscan Sisters of the Child Jesus convent in eastern Libya as a precaution against attack.
Christians are not the only target for extremists, with Salafists – a hardline Islamic group, blamed for the bombing of a shrine of the minority Sufis in Tripoli on Thursday.