03/13/2013, 00.00
EGYPT - LIBYA

Benghazi, Coptic Christians denounce torture and attempts to convert them to Islam

44 of the 48 Christian vendors arrested in the market of Benghazi in February on charges of proselytizing have returned home. The Salafis forced them to say the prayer of conversion to Islam and spit on the images of Pope Shenouda III. Four of them are still in the hands of the Libyan police.

Cairo (AsiaNews) - Libyan Salafis are responsible for torture, attempts to forcibly convert and desecration of Christian imagery. This is according to  44 of the 48 Egyptian Coptic vendors on their return home. "They forced us to pronounce the al-shahaadatayn - said one of them - the proclamation of the Islamic faith and spit on images of Pope Shenouda III." So far, the Egyptian government has not reacted to the episode that involved its citizens nor charges of religious discrimination. However, the relatives of the victims are demanding justice and accuse the Islamist government of protecting the Libyan Salafists.

Arrested in mid-February in the Benghazi market, accused of publicizing religious images and illegal immigration, the Coptic Orthodox were held for several days in a jail guarded by Salafi armed guards. They were released after several days of negotiations between the Egyptian and the Libyan governments accused on several occasions of failing to protect foreign nationals in its territory. Currently four Christians are still detained in Libya for further investigation.

The case has also sparked outrage among the population of Benghazi, which in October revolted against the Salafi militias accused of having organized the attack on the U.S. consulate in which the US Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed.

Further aggravating relations between Cairo and Tripoli, but also between the Government of Benghazi and its people, is the case of Ezzat Atallah, also Egyptian and Christian, who died last March 10 in a prison in the Cyrenaica capital in mysterious circumstances. Like his 48 fellow vendors, he was arrested by a Salafi militia on charges of publicizing religious images. According to the Libyan authorities the man, 45 years old and father of two, suffered from diabetes and heart problems and likely died of natural causes. To date, the family has denied the statements made by the government in Benghazi. In an interview with the Christian Middle East News Agency (Mcn-direct), Atallah's sister points out that "my brother never had diabetes or heart."

Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi cases of aggression or attacks on foreign minorities living in Libya have increased. The communities most affected include the Egyptians, Coptic Christians especially Catholics and Orthodox. In February, an armed group raided a church in the Cyrenaica capital and attacked two Coptic priests, Fr. Paul Isaac and his assistant. At the end of February, four foreigners - an Egyptian, a South African, a South Korean and a Swede with U.S. passport - were arrested on charges of distributing Bibles and other religious material. They are imprisoned in a prison in Tripoli, awaiting trial.

The presence of Islamic militants is also affecting the Catholic religious orders present for decades on Libyan territory, engaged in healthcare and looking after the elderly. In January, the Islamists prompted the flight of the Franciscan Sisters of the Infant Jesus from Barce and the Ursuline Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus from Beida. In October it was instead the turn to the nuns of the Convent of the Holy Family of Spoleto based in Derna, who were forced to leave Libya due to continuous threats from Islamic extremists, despite the opposition of the inhabitants of the city. (S.C.)

 

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