One protestor, a Middle Eastern Christian, told CNA that the Libyan government holds Coptic Christians and “accuses them of evangelizing against Islam” for possessing Christian Bibles and icons, even though such items are permissible under Libyan law.
“I'm sorry to say, but in the Middle East, it's all starting to be the same,” he continued, warning that similar persecution of Christians has also occurred in Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon.
The March 14 protest condemned the arrest and torture of dozens of Egyptian Copts in Libya, as well as the death of one of the Christians, Ezzat Hakim Atallah, on March 9 after ten days of torture at the hands of Libya's Preventive Security department in Tripoli.
The protestors gathered in hopes of persuading authorities to free the remaining prisoners who, according to a statement by the organizers, were detained simply for “possessing Christian books for personal use.”
The event was organized by the group Coptic Solidarity and joined by the Jubilee Campaign, an organization that seeks to pursue religious freedom for persecuted Christians.
In a press release announcing the protest, Coptic Solidarity called on Libyan authorities to release all Copts imprisoned in the country “under the despicable and idiotic charges of proselytizing.”
They also criticized Egyptian government officials for “their failure to defend their fellow citizens.”
“In contrast,” the group added, the Egyptian “presidency and the foreign ministry had enthusiastically rushed to defend a Muslim Brotherhood cell that was arrested in the United Arab Emirates on charges of threatening the country's national security.”
“The attitude of the Egyptian authorities in dealing with the Coptic citizens is shameful.”
The organization also called on international human rights groups to push for investigations and an end to “the flagrant attacks on innocent Copts in Libya.”
Kelly McLean of the Jubilee Campaign told CNA that one of the prisoners was the owner of a bookshop in Benghazi that contained some Christian books and humanitarian aid materials. Previously, police had confiscated a number of his books, but had allowed him to keep others, she said.
However, in early March, the shop owner was detained again on charges of proselytization because “he had fewer books than the original shipment,” leading the government to claim that he had been distributing the books.
But in reality, McLean explained, the shortage of books was due to the fact that police had already confiscated some of them.
“It doesn't make any sense,” she said. “Honestly, if he was giving out that many books, there would have been an issue before this latest detention.”
“Hopefully in the future, we want to put pressure on the government to not only abide by human rights standards, but to uphold their own constitution, which allows freedom of religion,” she added.