A deadly attack in Libya’s western town of Dafniya has shed new light on a religious minority whose presence in the post-Arab Spring country has gone largely ignored.
Two Coptic Christians died and two more were wounded when a bomb exploded in a church early Sunday. The incident is under investigation.
“We are very sad for this event that comes at a delicate moment, after Christmas. We hope there will be no further incidents," Father Dominique Rezeau, a Catholic pastor in the capital city of Tripoli, told Agence France-Presse. “This is the first time we see such an attack. Christians never had a particular problem in Libya before or after the revolution.”
The Christian community in Libya is a small one, making up only about 3 percent of the population. The vast majority of those Christians don’t have Libyan origins – most are Egyptian, Greek or Italian.
The Coptic Church that was bombed this weekend was a place of worship for many Egyptian Christians. In fact, the word "Coptic" essentially means "Egyptian," and traces back to the period between the third and seventh centuries when Christianity – not Islam – was the dominant religion in North Africa.
Still today, Christians make up the largest religious minority in Egypt, with 10 percent of the population. The Coptic Church there has its base in the ancient city of Alexandria, where a new Pope Theodorus II was installed this November. Today, the Egyptian Copts are feeling increasingly isolated by their national government, which has been dominated by Islamists since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak two years ago.
In Libya, religious beliefs are far more homogeneous with Sunni Muslims making up about 97 percent of the population. And yet, of all the nations that saw new elections following the Arab Spring revolutions, Libya has leaned the most liberal. A secular-leaning political bloc called the National Forces Alliance won a plurality of seats in Tripoli’s new national assembly this June, winning 39 out of 80 seats. The Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab Islamist organization that swept Egypt’s own national poll, came away with just 17 seats in Libya.
But some Islamist hardliners in Libya have taken it upon themselves to make their voices heard – often violently.
That became clear in September, when extremists attacked the U.S. Mission in Benghazi and killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Scores of other, less high-profile extremist attacks in recent months have set the Libyan population on edge. Several security officials have been assassinated, and the central government remains too weak to enforce order on its own.
The roots of this problem are deep. In Libya, various militias took domestic security into their own hands following the 2011 revolution that overthrew dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Having been at the forefront of the movement to oust the regime, the groups are loath to relinquish what they see as their rightful local sovereignty. Some of these groups have an ideological foundation in Islamist extremism, and many enjoy the loyalty of the public in their respective fiefdoms. The weak central government in Tripoli still relies on some of these groups to enforce security, even though it officially decries their presence as a threat to stability.
Since most of Libya’s Christians are not only a religious minority but also of foreign origin, they are doubly threatened by this rise of militant extremism in the country.
Karim Bitar, a Paris-based analyst, told Agence France-Presse that the latest attack in Dafniya has given Libya’s Christians an “existential crisis.”
“The worry is that Christians in Libya ... will be but the first to suffer from the Libyan central government's endemic weakness [and] the proliferation of armed militias,” he said.