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
The Coptic Orthodox Church estimates that prior to the collapse of the Libyan state in 2011, Coptic Orthodox Christians numbered around 300,000, and that other denominations, such as Catholics and Protestants, numbered about 30,000. Altogether, the Christian population represented a little over 5 percent of the national population. The great majority of Christians in Libya had been migrant workers from other countries, particularly Egypt. However, a mass exodus between 2011 and 2015 decimated the Christian community in Libya. As of 2021, according to Christian NGO Open Doors USA, only an estimated 34,600 Christians remain in Libya. Approximately 150 are Libyan converts from Islam. The rest are migrants and foreign workers from sub-Saharan Africa and from the Philippines.
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 February 2015, ISIS beheaded twenty Egyptian Coptic Christians and one Ghanaian Christian. These men were migrant laborers, and had been kidnapped from an apartment in Sirte by militants who singled them out from among Muslims in the building. In April 2015, ISIS released a video depicting the executions of thirty Christian migrants from Ethiopia.
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.
Only a handful of churches remain open in Libya. With few exceptions, Christians in Libya cannot practice their faith openly. Conversion to Christianity is outlawed, thus converts must keep their faith secret, even from close family members. Converts often are married and receive funerals according to Islamic rites while migrant Christians are often buried in unmarked graves along roads, according to Open Doors USA.
Since its formation in March 2021, Libya’s Government of National Unity has provided nominal central governance. However, due to ongoing factional disagreements, elections of the new government’s president and parliament have been postponed indefinitely. Even if the GNU succeeds in improving stability and reducing violence in Libya, it is unlikely that it would significantly reduce persecution of Christians. Libya’s 2017 draft constitution does not guarantee freedom of religion or belief, and exclusively establishes Islamic Sharia as the nation’s law.
Responses to Persecution
After the fall of Gaddafi and the rise of Islamist 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.
A small minority of foreign Christians who have remained in Libya have attempted to continue worshiping openly. Open Doors USA reports that as of January 2022 the Catholic church in Libya has one functioning church, located in Tripoli. The Egyptian Copts no longer have functioning churches in the country. Although a few Protestant churches have remained, since February 2022, the Union Church in Tripoli and three other multinational Protestant congregations have faced eviction from the building that they have used for 51 years.
Some of the many Christians unable to escape violence in Libya have willingly accepted martyrdom, as did Matthew Ayariga, the Ghanaian Christian executed along with 20 other Christians in 2015. Although Ayariga’s captors reportedly offered him freedom if he renounced Christianity, Ayariga chose to affirm his Christianity and face execution with the Coptic Christians beside him.
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. It was updated by Joseph London at the University of Notre Dame in June 2022.