FaithWorld

Libya war pushes Christian presence to the brink

May 19, 2011

(A view of a mosaic on the floor of the ancient Western Church of the Qasr Libya museum complex near Al-Bayda April 25, 2011/Amr Abdallah Dalsh )

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.

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.

“The revolutionaries are good to us. They are afraid for us more than their own people. There’s a lot of affection between us and Libyans,” said Redha Thabit, a Copt in Benghazi.

Evidence of Libyan Christian communities has been traced back to the century following Jesus’s birth. According to three of the gospels, it was Simon of Cyrene — an ancient coastal city lying in the east of today’s Libya — who helped to carry the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.

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