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Mystery surrounds fate of seized Copts

09 January 2015


Seeking answers: Coptic Christian men, relatives of 13 Coptic Christians kidnapped in Libya, leave the foreign ministry in Cairo, Egypt, on Monday

Seeking answers: Coptic Christian men, relatives of 13 Coptic Christians kidnapped in Libya, leave the foreign ministry in Cairo, Egypt, on Monday

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 complete.

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 unrest".

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.

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