The crisis of the Copts detained for more than two weeks now in Benghazi, Libya, on charges of preaching Christianity has been escalating, while officials in Egypt turn a blind eye to the matter
The crisis of the Copts detained for more than two weeks now in Benghazi, Libya, on charges of preaching Christianity has been escalating, while officials in Egypt turn a blind eye to the matter.
The exact number of the detainees is not known, especially that more than 50 of them have been released and deported to Egypt while others are yet being caught. The returnees to Egypt claim that the number stands at more than 200.
Among those who were released is Father Pola Ishaq of the Coptic Orthodox church of St Mark in Benghazi, who is back to his church service, but who says the congregation is afraid of going to church since the Libyan authorities might catch them if they did.
Five Copts are still held pending investigation. The five are: Ezzat Hakim Atallah, Eissa Ibrahim, Emad Seddiq, Adel Shaker, and Sherif Ramsis who owns a print shop. The lawyer Naguib Gabrail of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights, told Watani that the names of the first four were found on the contact list on Ramsis’s cell phone.
Disappointed with the President
The Libyan authorities claim the detainees were “preaching Christianity in the Libyan Muslim community”, and base their charges on the fact that the Copts had in their possession Bibles and Christian books and pictures “that exceeded what is needed for personal use”. The Copts were also said to have been suspect because most of them had crosses tattooed on their wrists, a very common tradition among Copts who usually have their toddlers and children tattooed at a very early age.
It is not yet understood why these Copts were held, Mr Gabrail says. “The Libyan authorities first said the Copts had been suspected of preaching Christianity then they claimed the Copts were in Libya illegally and will be deported. But even those with legal papers have been deported,” he says.
Copts, especially those in Libya, are severely disappointed with President Mursi and the Egyptian government for their inaction regarding the crisis.
President Mursi met the Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan in Cairo last Thursday, to discuss Egyptian Libyan relations; but in no way broached the outstanding case of the Copts detained in Libya.
According to Copts who were deported to Egypt, the Islamists in Benghazi chase Egyptians, and especially Copts, and go as far as to place a bounty of 50 Libyan Liras on a Copt’s head. Fr Pola, who was among the detainees, was abused and mistreated—his captors even shaved off his moustache—before he was set free.
Other Copts are caught, humiliated and mistreated, and their possessions confiscated. Those who manage to escape detention are now prisoners in their homes, since they can no longer venture out for fear of being caught.
Scenes of torture
Milad Mina was among those who were deported to Egypt. Mina told Watani that he was among a group of Coptic construction workers from Minya, Upper Egypt, who were working in Benghazi. “When we heard that the Islamists were chasing Copts, we decided to rush back to Egypt. We boarded two cars, but were stopped on the way at the checkpoint of al-Hamam. We were beaten up and robbed of all our possessions by armed men in civilian clothes. These then handed us over to security officials who moved us to a security camp. The security men did not attack us but, when they knew we were Copts, they verbally abused and humiliated us.
“At the camp, we found not less than 400 Egyptians; most of them were Copts. There were a number of Muslims, but the worst treatment was reserved for the Copts. In one area, we encountered some 30 Copts who were being tortured and had had their hair closely shaved. They were stripped naked and were being splashed with ice-cold water. They were accused of preaching Christianity, which I’m sure is absolutely false since Copts in Libya, like all other Egyptian workers there, focus on working hard to earn a decent income to send money to their families back home. Of course we have our Bibles, Agpiya (The Coptic Orthodox book of the prayers of the hours), and the pictures of the saints; but these are strictly speaking for our personal use. Who has the leisure to preach Christianity?”
“We were detained in the camp for five days,” Mina recalls, “during which we were treated very badly. We were handed food twice a day; each time only a small loaf of bread. We were forced into labour to move heavy weapons, automatic firearms and bombs, from vehicles to stores.
“We were then questioned as to how we entered the country and what work we did. We were not allowed to read the official proceedings that carried our testimonies, but were forced to sign or, in case of those who did not read or write, to stamp the papers.
“We, meaning 11 of us—the others remained in camp—were then moved to the Egyptian border and handed over to the Egyptian authorities.”
Mina describes the situation in Libya as the worst ever after the fall of Gaddafi and his regime, and the subsequent rule of Islamists. “The country has become unstable, very insecure, and weapons are everywhere,” he says.
Blocked his ear
Last Thursday, a delegation from al-Misiryeen al-Ahrar (The Free Egyptians) political party met the Libyan ambassador to Cairo Ashour Hamad Bou-Rashid in an attempt to get accurate information about the Egyptians detained in Benghazi. The party issued a statement in which it declared that the Libyan ambassador explained that Copts were detained on charges of preaching Christianity, which is illegal in Libya. He also said that some 100 Copts had been kidnapped by Islamic extremists and the Libyan government knows nothing about them.
The delegation demanded that the Egyptians held in Libya should be released, and that the Libyan administration should apologise to the Egyptian people for the inhuman treatment of the Egyptians in Libya.
Mohamed al-Alayli, member of the National Salvation Front, says that President Mursi has blocked his ears to Coptic problems. “What has happened to the Copts in Libya is part of a series of humiliating Egyptians abroad. The government is not achieving its role in protecting the dignity of Egyptians outside Egypt. In case of Libya, the violations against the Egyptians are committed by Islamists related to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood who currently hold the reins of government in Egypt, he says.
“It defies reason”
Anba Pachomeus; Archbishop of Beheira, Matrouh, and Pentapolis (Libya); says that it defies reason to claim that more than 100 persons should leave their country with the purpose of preaching. It is consequently unacceptable, he insists, that they should be detained and tortured on mere suspicions with no clear evidence. He says he is closely following on the matter with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The incident has come under fire from rights activists. Mr Gabrail said that the detention of the Copts under the pretext that they were preaching Christianity was a very serious precedent that violated human rights and that would place Libya under international censure. In case the Foreign Ministry and the Arab League fail to resolve the crisis, he said, “we will have to resort to the international community.”
Professor of international law Awad Shafiq who currently resides in Geneva has sent an urgent message to the Libyan Prime Minister asking him to set free the Egyptians detained and tortured in Libya.
9 March 2013
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