CONFUSION surrounds the fate of 13 Egyptian Copts working in
Libya who were reportedly kidnapped last Saturday from a
residential compound in Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast. The
initial indication was that they had been seized by Jihadist
Muslims thought to belong to the Ansar al-Sharia Islamist group.
But subsequent unconfirmed reports say that the Copts were held by
people-smugglers, and have since been freed.
Shortly after the men were taken away, the Associated Press
quoted a witness as saying that 15 armed men had arrived in four
vehicles. The gunmen produced a list of the Christians in the
compound. As identities were checked, Muslims were allowed to
remain, while Christians were rounded up and taken away at
gunpoint. Over the past two weeks, at least eight Egyptian Copts
have been seized at gunpoint. A Coptic couple and their 13-year-old
daughter were found dead in Sirte just before Christmas.
On Wednesday, however, a Libyan news agency quoted a tribal
leader as denying that the 13 missing Copts had been kidnapped, and
saying that they had only been detained briefly by a group of men
who organise the smuggling of people out of the country.
Whatever the facts of this particular incident, in the absence
of a strong central government, Libya has become a battleground for
competing militia groups. Sirte is controlled by Islamists who
oppose the government of the Prime Minister, Abdullah al-Thinni,
which is broadly recognised by the international community. He has
been forced to move his seat of power and the country's parliament
from the capital, Tripoli, to Tobruk, in eastern Libya. Meanwhile,
Omar al-Hassi, with the backing of Islamist militias, has set up a
rival administration in Tripoli.
The General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United
Kingdom, Bishop Angaelos, said in a statement that it was "deeply
concerning to witness the unprovoked, targeted and escalating
attacks on Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya, particularly but
not exclusively in Sirte", and that the number of attacks was
continuing to rise.
The statement went on to say that in recent years "Coptic
Christians in Libya have endured horrific acts of brutality that
include the bombing of churches, abductions, torture, and
execution-style murders." Bishop Angaelos said that he had
contacted Pope Tawadros II and other senior figures in the Egyptian
Coptic Church, and was "aware that the Egyptian government is
liaising with Libyan authorities and working to provide safe
passage for Coptic Christians returning from Libya, an initiative
welcomed at this time".
The Egyptian foreign ministry has advised Egyptians in Sirte to
remain indoors until arrangements for their departure are
At the conclusion of his statement, Bishop Angaelos called for
prayers for "those who are literally concerned for their lives in
Libya, as well as for countless other Christians and minority
groups across the Middle East who are victims of war, violence, and
In Egypt, two policemen guarding a Coptic church south of Cairo
were shot dead on Tuesday. The identity of the gunmen is not known.
Security at churches throughout Egypt was increased before the
celebration of Coptic Christmas on Tuesday evening. Some streets
were closed to avoid the possibility of car bombings.
The President-Bishop in Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Most
Revd Mouneer Anis, in his New Year message, said that the frequent
media reports of clashes between religious groups did not reflect
the full picture. Egyptians also experienced "stories of grace,
friendship, and kindness. Following many tumultuous years, I am
encouraged to see so many signs of a new spirit among Muslims and
Christians in Cairo, and throughout Egypt."
Bishop Anis pointed out that representatives from various
government agencies and other religious groups had attended the
Christmas services at All Saints' Cathedral, Cairo. They included
delegates from President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his cabinet, Pope
Tawadros II, and the Grand Imam.