Detention of Christians roils Egypt-Libya relations

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 17 Mar 2013

Longstanding tensions between Egypt and its western neighbour are aggravated following recent detention in Libya of Egyptian Christians charged with proselytising

Pope of Egypt’s Coptic Church Tawadros II on Sunday afternoon received the Libyan ambassador in Cairo to discuss the fate of three Egyptian Coptic-Christians – along with another Egyptian national from Egypt’s Evangelical Church – currently detained in Libya on charges of ‘promoting Christianity’ in the North African nation.

According to sources who spoke to Ahram Online, the Libyan ambassador told Tawadros that Libyan law categorically prohibits the promotion of any religion other than Islam. At the meeting, the Coptic pope reportedly expressed dismay over the recent death of an Egyptian Evangelical Christian in Libya who had been detained in Libya on the same charges.

Talks between the Coptic pope and the Libyan ambassador came less than 24 hours after the Libyan embassy temporarily suspended operations in Egypt amid concerns over the safety of its staff.

“Our people have been attacked as they enter and exit the embassy building; we need better security arrangements,” said an embassy source.

Egyptian authorities, who had earlier told Ahram Online that the chants of a few Christian protestors do not amount to a “physical threat” to the wellbeing of Libyan embassy workers, promised to step up security measures around the embassy.

Meanwhile, Coptic Church sources told Ahram Online that Tawadros promised to try and convince protestors to strictly adhere to peaceful protest, pending the handover of the four Egyptian Christians still held in Libya.

No clear date has been given yet by the Libyan side for the handover of the detained Egyptian nationals.

Along with the return of the body of slain Evangelical Christian Ezzat El-Hakim, 55 Egyptians were allowed to return home following the suspension of the charges lodged against them.

A government source predicted the handover “soon” of the “three Copts who seem able to prove that they have no association with the missionising charges. But we are still working on the case of the Evangelical Christian who was arrested [in Libya], along with other followers of the Evangelical Church in other countries.”

The arrest and partial release of Egyptian Christians in Libya came against the backdrop of repeated attacks on a Coptic Church in Libya.

The latest incidents only add to the state of on-again-off-again tension between Egypt and Libya, which had also existed under the previous regimes of ousted president Hosni Mubarak and assassinated Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

According to one informed Egyptian source, “tension today involves a business rivalry between a leading Muslim Brotherhood figure” in Egypt and a key member of the Libyan government who was originally a businessman.

“We must be very careful in handling this matter; our relations with Libya are a very delicate matter due to the fact that we have over a million Egyptians working in Libya and it would be a catastrophe if they were all forced to leave,” said the same government source.

Egypt is also concerned with arms smuggling from post-Gaddafi Libya into Egypt. For its part, Libya voices concern over what it describes as ‘infiltration” by Islamist activists from Egypt into Libyan territory and the latter’s “association with Islamist militias,” according to Libyan source.

Earlier this month, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidane was in Cairo for talks with top Egyptian officials, the outcome of which was generally viewed as positive. 

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