Libyan officials arrested four Christian foreigners over the weekend, accusing them of distributing books about Christianity and sharing their faith.
Police spokesman Hussein bin Hamid said the “suspects” were from South Africa, Egypt, and South Korea. One held both Swedish and U.S. citizenship. The Swedish Foreign Ministry confirmed that a dual national Swedish-American citizen was arrested while traveling on a U.S. passport. The U.S. Embassy in Libya declined comment.
Spreading the message of Christ is a crime in the predominantly Muslim North African country.
The four were arrested in the eastern city of Benghazi on Tuesday and are under investigation for printing and distributing books that share the gospel. Police said they found 45,000 books in the group’s possession but that another 25,000 had already been distributed.
Bin Hamid said embassy officials have visited the detainees. He would not say where they are being held.
On Sunday, Libyans celebrated the second anniversary of the uprising that toppled dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Despite its newfound freedom, the country is struggling with widespread lawlessness and a stagnant economy. As unrest spreads, so do threats against Christians.
Last year, the International Committee of the Red Cross had to suspend its activities in Benghazi after assailants launched attacks on its offices. The aid group was accused by some in Libya of distributing Bibles and proselytizing.
But it’s not just Libya that’s hostile to Christians. All of North Africa is becoming a dangerous place to witness.
In Algeria last July, Ibouène Mohamed was sentenced to one year in prison and a fine of 50,000 Algerian dinars after a co-worker accused him of evangelizing—a charge Mohamed denied.
According to World Watch Monitor, an appeals court affirmed the verdict and penalty on Jan. 23. On Wednesday, a further appeals court in the northwestern Algerian town of Béchar overturned Mohamed’s prison sentence but doubled his fine.
“We are profoundly upset by the verdict,’’ Mustapha Krim, president of the Protestant Church of Algeria, told World Watch Monitor. ‘‘It is absolutely unfair to condemn a young man to a prison sentence just because he had a talk with his co-worker.’’
A 2006 Algerian law gives courts the right to sentence Christians to up to five years in prison for sharing the gospel with Muslims.
Christian teacher Habiba Kouider was charged under the law in 2008 for illegal possession of Bibles. That arrest drew widespread media attention and criticism from the European Parliament and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, according to World Watch. The case is still pending.