The situation for Christians in Libya changed drastically after the Gaddafi regime fell in 2011. The country fell into chaos, and weapons and Islamist ideologies flowed across the relaxed borders from Egypt. By 2013, Islamist militia groups such as Ansar al Sharia, the Nusra Front, and ISIS had firmly embedded themselves in Libya and begun to hunt down Christians. Though many Christians initially attempted to stay in Libya, thousands ultimately fled the country, mostly to their homeland of Egypt.
Scholarly Analysis: Christian Responses to Persecution in Libya
Egypt, Libya, Israel-Palestine, Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Turkish-Occupied Cyprus
Panel: Findings from the Middle East & North Africa
Moderator: Christian Sahner, University of Cambridge
Speakers: Joshua Landis, University of Oklahoma
Elizabeth Prodromou, Tufts University
Mariz Tadros, University of Sussex
Christian Van Gorder, Baylor University
A recent mass exodus has decimated the Christian community in Libya, but the Coptic Orthodox Church estimates that prior to the collapse of the Libyan state in 2011, Coptic Orthodox numbered around 300,000 and other denominations, such as Catholics and Protestants, numbered about 30,000. In other words, the Christian population was approximately 330,000, representing a little over 5 percent. The great majority of Christians in Libya were migrant workers from other countries, particularly Egypt.
History of the Libyan Christian Community
Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya as a dictator for over forty years, until his death in 2011. Although technically Christianity was subject to regulations and restrictions during this time, most of these laws—such as those that prohibited Bibles and other religious materials from entering Libya—were unenforced. In fact, Christians report very little religious-inspired discrimination in employment, housing, or everyday life under Gaddafi’s rule. On occasions of religious festivities such as Palm Sunday, Copts would even have processions on the streets without any expressed objection from the Libyan community.
Current Situation of the Libyan Christian Community
The situation for Christians in Libya changed drastically after the Gaddafi regime fell. The country fell into chaos, and weapons and Islamist ideologies flowed across the relaxed borders from Egypt. By 2013, Islamist militia groups such as Ansar al Sharia, the Nusra Front, and ISIS had firmly embedded themselves in Libya and begun to hunt down Christians. Often, they were enabled by informants who handed over Copts in return for a bounty. On a beach in Libya in 2013, ISIS beheaded 21 Coptic Christians. Though many Christians initially attempted to stay in Libya, thousands ultimately fled the country, mostly to their homeland of Egypt, enduring harrowing journeys and leaving behind homes and business. Those who did not leave the country during this mass exodus are now effectively trapped in Libya as travel has become extremely dangerous.
Responses to Persecution
After the fall of Gaddafi and the rise of Islamists militias, Christians initially attempted to adapt to the new situation without leaving Libya, but ultimately the overwhelming response to the heightened persecution has been emigration.
At first when Islamist groups and ideologies grew in power, Christians did what they could to adapt. Many Libyans sought to help Coptic workers by alerting them when Al Nusra militias were approaching and in some instances actively helped smuggle them to safe zones. As Copts became increasingly vulnerable to abductions from their residence, they would take turns staying up late as watch guards. Soon, however, such defensive measures were not enough, and many began a fugitive journey, moving from one residence to another to avoid capture. They stopped using regular transport, fearful of being turned over by bounty-seekers or sympathizers with the Islamist movements, and those who had earlier displayed signs of their religious faith (such as wearing crosses) chose to hide them so as not to make their identity conspicuous. Religious books and Bibles were hidden.
It was not long before many Copts saw the need to abandon these strategies in favor of emigration. The escape to Egypt was dangerous, in part because many had religious tattoos or explicitly Christian names that made it difficult to conceal their identity, but it is estimated that no less than 200,000 Christians left Libya between 2011 and 2015—the biggest mass exodus in modern history. Many described a harrowing journey involving two days’ drive in the desert in a bid to avoid Islamist militias, thugs, and others. Once they reached the Egyptian border, they were subject to intense interrogations which in some cases lasted several hours before they were allowed to enter the country. Even safely in Egypt, they suffered the financial consequences of a speedy and secret emigration. Many still hope to return to Libya someday.
This country profile draws on research by Dr. Mariz Tadros and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project.