PICTURE EDITION 28: THE CHURCH IN LIBYA: SUFFERING TERRIBLE PAIN AND HARDSHIP

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1. History

Libya has been occupied by humans since the dawn of history. During the ice ages after the great flood it was a lush and fertile area with a growing population. From its original population emerged the Berber people group. Sadly it is now 90% desert and most people now hug the Mediterranean coast to the north.

The recorded history of Libya comprises six distinct periods: Ancient Berber Libya, the Greek and Roman eras, the Islamic era, Ottoman rule, Italian rule, and the Modern era. First to join the Berbers were the Phoenicians from Lebanon. The famous city of Carthage was their headquarters. The empire that grew out of Carthage was a major thorn in the side of the expanding Roman Empire across the waters to the north. At the time of Jesus many Berbers traded with Israel and it was a Berber, Simon of Cyrene, who carried Christ’s cross to Gethsemane (Mark 15:21). In 698 AD Libya fell to the Arabs and thus began the still ongoing subjugation of the Berber people, language, culture and their Christian religion.

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its North African possessions during World War 1, Libya fell into the hands of the Italians. Half the Bedouin population was killed in the severe suppression that characterised Italian rule. Libya finally became an independent state in 1952 but only 15 years later it fell into the hands of a military dictator, Muammar Gaddafi who destroyed much of the culture and social cohesion.

2. Today

Gaddafi’s death during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, and the power vacuum that followed, has led to large scale disintegration of the country and a religiously motivated civil war. The booty of this war being control of Libya’s vast oil reserves. Only now is there a strong enough faction emerging to pull the country together again.

Libya today is a country of some 8 million people and is the main jumping off point for illegal immigrants from Africa wanting a better life in Europe. Perhaps 2 million more people are stuck in Libya on their way to Europe. Its infrastructure and economy is shattered and the little wealth that does come in from oil, which is 90% of all exports, doesn’t find its way to the common people.

3. Evangelical Highlights

In addition to Simon of Cyrene we hear of Libyans present at the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10). In the next few centuries the church flourished among the peoples of modern day Libya. Tertullian, the great theologian, was a Libyan Berber. It took many hundreds of years for Arabisation and Islam to destroy this vibrant church culture, but by the European colonial era the process was largely complete. Only a hundred thousand Catholic and Orthodox believers remain from that original church.

In the modern era the true church of Jesus Christ has been reborn in Libya thanks to Protestant missions in the first half of the 20th Century. At the end of the Gaddafi era there was some level of freedom and local believers began to grow in number. However, the anarchy that followed the ouster of Gaddafi plunged the country into chaos and Christians became targets for brutality and persecution. Any new converts to Christianity face abuse and violence for their decision to follow Christ. The many Christian migrants from southern Africa in Libya have been attacked, sexually assaulted, detained for slavery and even executed. Open Doors estimates 7,500 Christians were executed in 2015 alone! The only visible Christians in Libya today are western expatriate foreign workers in the large oil industry. The local church has had to go completely underground. It is one of the worst places in the world to be a local Christian.

The traditional church is now gone, perhaps forever. However I believe ISIS and other radical Islamic groups are actually sowing the seeds of a new church. Their repugnant brutality has brought millions of former Muslims to Christ across the Middle East. In Libya it will be no different. As we pray the Holy Spirit will be working through dreams, visions, visitations, miracles and the like. Many Saul’s will become Pauls in the decades ahead as the ordinary people reject doctrines of violence and the religion that justifies them. Just as the true church in Cambodia disappeared under Pol Pot and is now booming, the same will happen in Libya.

4. Prayer Points

Pray for the families of martyrs. They struggle.

Pray for divine favour and safety for remaining believers

Pray for radicals to meet Jesus just as Saul did

Pray for the Berber people to embrace their original faith

Pray for peace

Pray for Sat-7 satellite broadcasts to speak life and hope into a hopeless situation

Pray for internet ministries to bring many to faith

Pray for stability and an end to war.

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