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UNDER FIRE: Inside the Coptic Orthodox Church burned by unknown arsonists.
Mohammed El Shaiky/Xinhua/Newscom
UNDER FIRE: Inside the Coptic Orthodox Church burned by unknown arsonists.

Silent testimony in a region aflame

Libya | Can a new U.S. roadmap for religious freedom calm the crackdown on believers?

Issue: "Unstoppable?," April 20, 2013

A frightening scene at the Coptic Orthodox Church in Benghazi offered a glimpse into worsening conditions for Egyptian Christians living in Libya: In mid-March, militants set the church ablaze with a priest inside.

The priest escaped after local residents battled plumes of black smoke to rescue him, but the church was ruined. Smashed stained glass covered charred pews, and thick smoke saturated the building’s interior. The attack came two weeks after Libyan authorities arrested dozens of Egyptian Christians suspected of proselytizing. One died in custody.

It’s another wave in a growing tide against Christians in Islamic countries, but human-rights advocates note Christians aren’t the only religious minorities suffering. In early March, the United Nations reported severe persecution against both Christians and the Baha’i religious group in Iran. The study found at least 110 Baha’i adherents in jail for their religious beliefs, and 268 awaiting trial. The prisoners include two nursing mothers and their infants.

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During the same month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) met with family members of imprisoned Baha’i Iranians. USCIRF chair Katrina Lantos Swett noted a dark climate for Baha’is and Christians in Iran: “In fact, religious freedom conditions in Iran have regressed to a point not seen since the early days of the Islamic revolution more than 30 years ago.” 

Persecution against religious minorities in other countries—including Nigeria, Egypt, and Pakistan—led USCIRF to publish an “executive branch roadmap” for the White House. The document calls on the Obama administration to address religious persecution more aggressively in its second term, with steps that include establishing a working group at the National Security Council to coordinate strategy.

It’s unclear whether the Obama administration will confront religious freedom abuses more pointedly during the next four years: Newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry took months to call for the release of Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American pastor currently held in Iran.

Meanwhile, leaders in Islamic countries continue to harbor aggression toward other religious minorities. In January, a news agency released footage of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi bashing Jews two years before his election to the presidency. 

In the videos, Morsi urged Egyptians to “nurse our children and grandchildren on hatred” for Jews. He also condemned “Zionists” as “bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians” and “the descendants of apes and pigs.”

The U.S. State Department condemned Morsi’s remarks, but the Egyptian leader claimed his words were taken out of context. That’s little comfort for Israelis wondering if Morsi will uphold Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. During his video remarks from 2010, Morsi told a Muslim crowd that hatred of Jews “must go on for God and as a form of worshipping him.”

And though Morsi recently said he hoped Egypt and the United States could be “real friends,” his comments in 2010 were hardly amicable: He railed against America as a “Zionist” supporter, and called Obama a liar who promised the Arab world “empty meaningless words.”

Back in Benghazi, leaders of Libya’s Catholic community (made up mostly of Asian and African immigrants) said they wouldn’t allow the escalating attacks against Christians to quench their work. 

From his church in Benghazi, Bishop Sylvester Magro told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church: “Notwithstanding the difficulties that may crop up every now and then, we strive to continue with our silent testimony of worship, of faith, of trust, of confidence and growth in the Word of God.”

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.


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