Libya is to free four foreign Christians arrested in the eastern city of Benghazi for proselytizing after more than a month in jail, an official said.
The foreigners, a South African woman, a man with joint American-Swedish nationality, an Egyptian and South Korean, will be deported after their release, said Abdul Salam Barghathi, commanding officer of the Office of Preventative Security, a department of the Defense Ministry, in an interview in Benghazi.
“To keep good diplomatic relations, they are going to be allowed to go back to their countries,” he said, declining to give a date. They were arrested because the distribution of Christian literature is a “threat to homeland security,” he said.
The Office of Preventative Security was created in April 2011 shortly after the revolution that ousted Muammar Qaddafi began, and says its mission is to safeguard Libya and its Islamic culture. Units patrol in jeeps with license-plates bearing the words Preventative Security in Arabic and English.
While the group has authority across the country, it is most active in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city and home to the nation’s Islamist militias, which seek to enforce a strict interpretation of Sharia law in the region. Eastern Libya accounts for 85 percent of the country’s oil production, according to Abdeljalil Mayuf, a spokesman for Arabian Gulf Oil Co., a state oil producer.
Foreign Christians in Benghazi, many of whom are Egyptian guest workers, are from the Coptic church. Tripoli is home to Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic and Anglican churches, frequented by diplomats and other foreign workers.
On March 1, the Office of Preventative Security announced the arrest of 48 Egyptians, who were accused of evangelism and one of whom died in custody, triggering protests by Christians in Cairo. Islamists have gone further, setting fire to the Egyptian Coptic church in Benghazi on March 14.
Speaking in his office, Barghathi said the four foreigners were arrested for distributing Christian literature from a warehouse, a crime under the statute inherited from the previous regime. “We still work under Qaddafi law,” he said.
Barghathi said a consignment of 55,000 Christian books and pamphlets were seized by his men, together with a photocopying machine, which he said is now being used by his staff.
“Some of these bibles were being given to children and the poor. This is a question of homeland security,” he said. “Libya is 100 percent Muslim, we don’t have Christians and Jews, and nobody will accept any other religions.” He advised Copts not to seek a new church in the city.
The burned-out church, close to the central gold market, was deserted this week, the front door open. Inside, charred timbers and furniture are scattered around together with rotting fruit from the kitchen.
Abdul Mohammed, who lives nearby, said local Muslims saved the priest after the raid by young Islamists, and that most Muslims disapproved of the arson.
“We always had good relations with the Christians, they are our friends,” he said.
Meged Labib, a 25-year-old Egyptian clothing seller in the market agreed. He said the Christian community is increasingly nervous as he pulled back his sleeve to reveal a small blue cross tattooed on his wrist, proof of his religion.
“Our priest has gone to Egypt,” he said. “Now, we hold services only in our homes.”