BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - The Christian church in eastern Libya, which traces its roots back two millennia to the era of Christ, is fighting for survival because war has forced nearly all its worshippers to flee.
But Muslims in Libya’s rebel-held east are keen to show that Christians are still welcome, drawing a contrast with the Christian community’s turbulent history under Muammar Gaddafi, whose rule in the east was ended by mass protests in February.
Gaddafi has repeatedly predicted the triumph of Islam over Christianity in the world and likens NATO states launching air strikes against his military armour to “colonialist crusaders.”
At the Coptic church in Libya’s second city of Benghazi, the main rebel stronghold, bearded and robed Father Polla Eshak swings an incense burner among mostly empty pews for the worshippers who have not fled the fighting.
Many Christians in Libya are Copts, an Egyptian sect, and the number going to Eshak’s church has shrunk to about 40 from over 1,000 before the revolt began.
Eshak says it is fear of war, not persecution, that caused the exodus of Christians, nearly all of whom are foreign farmers, builders, nurses and other workers vital to Libya’s economy.
“Gaddafi’s administration gave us freedom and the next one will too, judging by the way we’ve been treated here,” Eshak said, referring to east Libya’s new rebel leadership.
The rebels have pledged to enshrine freedom of religion in the constitution so it no longer depends upon the whims of political leaders.
“The revolutionaries are good to us. They are afraid for us more than their own people. There’s a lot of affection between us and Libyans,” said Redha Thabit, a Copt in Benghazi.
Evidence of Libyan Christian communities has been traced back to the century following Jesus’s birth.
According to three of the gospels, it was Simon of Cyrene — an ancient coastal city lying in the east of today’s Libya — who helped to carry the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.
Christianity became mostly a religion of foreigners when Islam swept through in the seventh and eighth centuries, kept alive by trader communities, many from Pisa, Genoa and Malta.
The 1969 army putsch against King Idris that brought Gaddafi to power led to the confiscation and closure of churches and tight monitoring of religious practice.
But the Libyan leader’s attitude to Christians gradually mellowed and Christians in Benghazi said they faced few challenges in recent years.
In Eshak’s office, a photo of Gaddafi with Coptic leader Pope Shenouda hangs on the wall. Gaddafi gave Shenouda a human rights award in 2003 and gave Copts four buildings to use as churches for free, Eshak said.
Eshak’s church still sports carvings of the star of the David, reminders of the building’s former role as a synagogue for Libya’s Jewish community, before Jews were attacked and exiled in the years following Israel’s creation.
Muslims living near the building now keep an eye on their Christian neighbours to ensure history is not repeated.
“In this street, no one can say anything against them. If they do, we’ll all come to their defence,” said Haji Salim, a Muslim who lives opposite the church.
Najib Makhlouf, another local keeping an eye on the church, lamented the fate of the area’s Jewish inhabitants and said any sectarian violence today would undermine the rebel cause.
Clashes between Christians and Muslims in neighbouring Egypt have become more common in Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in February after 30 years in power.
There are also fears that al Qaeda could infiltrate Libya. Al Qaeda-linked groups conducted several high-profile attacks on Iraq’s Christian minority after the 2003 Iraq war.
“The most dangerous thing is sectarian attacks. In Egypt, they were started by a fifth column to sabotage the revolution,” Makhlouf said.
In the Catholic church’s heyday in Benghazi during the Italian occupation, a cavernous double-domed cathedral was built that still dominates the city’s waterfront.
The cathedral, now with Islamic crescent moons adorning the domes, has stood empty since thousands of Italians were expelled from Libya when Gaddafi took power. Locals say the site was later used as a venue to hang his opponents.
Sylvester Magro, the Catholic bishop of Benghazi, said he usually has some 10,000 Catholics in east Libya under his care, but was now tending to a reduced flock of a few hundred.
For mass, he has moved to a Benghazi hospital church, a smaller venue than usual. Speaking carefully, he would not be drawn on hopes and fears for his congregation’s future.
Magro’s usual venue for mass, a far larger building erected in 1872, was confiscated by Gaddafi in 1969 and returned to the church in 1976, he said.
“For the moment, it is the conflict that worries us. It’s a bad situation, tension. The future is unclear. The present time is taken up in prayer for the end of the conflict,” he said.
Editing by Tom Pfeiffer