Government condemns attack on Benghazi church

Egyptian Christians . . .[restrict]with heads shaved held in Benghazi (Photo: Maha Ellawati)

Tripoli/Benghazi 3 March 2013:

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has condemned an attack on Thursday on the Egyptian Coptic church in Benghazi in which the priest and his assistant were assaulted.

In a statement today, Sunday, the Ministry voiced its concern at what had happened and expressed regret, saying that the attack was “contrary to the teachings of our Islamic faith and customs and as well as international covenants on human rights and fundamental freedoms and respect for the monotheistic religions”.

The attack followed the arrest earlier in the week of a number of Copts, variously put at between 50 and 100, who were accused being Christian missionaries. Following the intervention of the Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr Kamel and the Egyptian embassy in Tripoli, they have now been deported.  Charges of proselytism have been dropped.

There have been concerns about possible Christian missionary activity in Benghazi since earlier reports that four Protestant Christians were arrested in the city on 13 February accused of proselytizing. One of them was also said to be an Egyptian, although it is extremely unusual for Protestants and Copts to have any links whatsoever.

The Copts were arrested in Benghazi’s Suq Al-Jareed area and accused of being missionaries after they were reportedly found in position of bibles and other Christian literature. According to the police, the arrests followed a row at the market. Other Egyptians working there, accused a group of Copts of trying to take over control of it. One of the complaints was that the latter were renting space at the market for LD 1,000 a month and then subletting it for LD 2,000.

Following the complaints, the police say that after they arrested the Copts they found books in a “storage place” which were covered on the outside so as not be identified as Christian. These books, they said, the Copts denied owning.

A display of the books went on show last week at a Katiba building in Benghazi not run by the police.

Insisting that they had nothing against Christianity and that they respected all religions, the Libyan police said that the group’s behaviour aroused their suspicions, including, reportedly, the fact that all had crosses tattooed on their wrists.

All Copts have crosses tattooed on their wrists.

On questioning, the police say, the traders disclosed the names of other Copts whom they knew, resulting in the arrest of around 100 in all. The police said they were found without passports or any identity documents and that it was not clear how they entered the country.

Following Egyptian embassy complaints about the treatment of the men, the Interior Ministry took control of the Copts, holding them in prison pending their expulsion on charges of entering the country illegally.

There been claims, however, reported in the online edition of the Egyptian daily Al Ahram, that the Copts were absued. The paper reported a Coptic Church source in Egypt claiming that “the detained Copts had been tortured by their captors, who had also shaved their heads and used acid to burn off the crosses tattooed on their wrists”.

Photos show the men with shaved heads, but no sign of anything else.

The Church source had also claimed that the men had been arrested after “a group of Salafist Muslims” attacked a Coptic church in Benghazi. However, all the indications are that the attack on the church took place after the arrests, not before.

According to today’s Foreign Ministry statement, a committee of enquiry comprising itself, the Interior Ministry, the General Staff and the Intelligence Service and headed by the Ministry of Justice has been set up to investigate the attack on the church. In the meantime, it said the government would be providing security to the building.

The Ministry statement also called on “all Libyan citizens to respect those from friendly and sister countries living in Libya and to respect their beliefs”.

On 30 December, two members of the Coptic church in Misrata died when the building was bombed. The culprits have not yet been found.

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