(Reuters) – The Christian church in eastern Libya, which traces its roots back two millennia to the era of Christ, is fighting for survival because war has forced nearly all its worshippers to flee.
But Muslims in Libya’s rebel-held east are keen to show that Christians are still welcome, drawing a contrast with the Christian community’s turbulent history under Muammar Gaddafi, whose rule in the east was ended by mass protests in February.
Gaddafi has repeatedly predicted the triumph of Islam over Christianity in the world and likens NATO states launching air strikes against his military armour to “colonialist crusaders”. At the Coptic church in Libya’s second city of Benghazi, the main rebel stronghold, bearded and robed
Father Polla Eshak swings an incense burner among mostly empty pews for the worshippers who have not fled the fighting. Many Christians in Libya are Copts, an Egyptian sect, and the number going to Eshak’s church has shrunk to about 40 from over 1,000 before the revolt began. Eshak says it is fear of war, not persecution, that caused the exodus of Christians, nearly all of whom are foreign farmers, builders, nurses and other workers vital to Libya’s economy.
Najib Makhlouf, another local keeping an eye on the church, lamented the fate of the area’s Jewish inhabitants and said any sectarian violence today would undermine the rebel cause.
Clashes between Christians and Muslims in neighouring Egypt have become more common in Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in February after 30 years in power.
There are also fears that al Qaeda could infiltrate Libya. Al Qaeda-linked groups conducted several high-profile attacks on Iraq’s Christian minority after the 2003 Iraq war. (Status)