The Rich Christian History of Libya
By: Ruqyah Sweidan/Arab America Contributing Writer
One of the lesser-known demographic facts about the North African country of Libya is its Christian population. Most, unfortunately, the population has dwindled greatly due to war. Nevertheless, Libyan history and architecture tell the story of the noblest and rich presence of Libyan Christians. Buried for more than a millennium beneath the sand and currently being re-discovered is the Christian presence in Libya. From about A.D. 68 till the Muslim conquest of A.D. 643, Libya housed a vibrant, creative Christian community that greatly contributed to the shape of the faith.
The General History
Libya has had quite a turbulent transition of powers. The Berbers had been the main inhabitants of Libya since the late Bronze Age. Later, the Phoenicians established trading posts in western Libya, and Ancient Greek colonists established city-states in eastern Libya. Moreover, Libya was variously ruled by Persians, Egyptians, and Greek-Egyptians before being annexed the Roman Empire. Libya was an early center of Christianity. During the 7th Century, Muslim Arab rulers had taken control. In the sixteenth century, the Spanish Empire and the Knights of St John occupied Tripoli, until Ottoman rule began in 1551. Libya was involved in the Barbary Wars of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Regional Beginnings of Christianity
The origins of the Church in Libya goes back to the origin of Christianity. Christian thought was also nurtured in North Africa. This is where the Bible says Moses was born and grew up, and where the Libyan Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus Christ carry the cross [Mark 15: 21-24]. When the Christians were struggling for survival in the region, Rome and Greece had not yet been introduced to Jesus Christ. In addition, when the early Christian movement was persecuted and plighted with heresy in Egypt (and later in Jerusalem), the Libyans and the Cyprians were among the first of men to carry the news of new-born Jesus to the Greeks and to the surrounding Mediterranean islands. By this time, Christianity was finally nurtured to grow into a major religion. The Romans protected the faith and further spread around the ancient world over the next 400 years.
Among the first to leave Libya for Egypt and start a number of Christian communities were the Libyan-Berber St. Mark, the author of the first Christian Bible: the “Gospel of Mark”. St. Mark also founded the Church of Alexandria in Egypt. However, where he began spreading the new religion. Furthermore, Arius Ammonius was the Berber leader of the movement of reform and modernization in Christianity in North Africa. Arius emphasized the Father’s divinity over the Son. Also of historical importance is the fact that among the first to document the Christian philosophy and produce tumultuous volumes of Christian lore was the Berber St. Augustine of Algeria; who together with Saint Mark is widely regarded among the most prominent figures of early Christianity. Unfortunately, Berber pioneers of Christianity are often overlooked by Christian historians.
Christianity in Libya Today
The largest Christian group in Libya is the Coptic Orthodox Church, with a population of 60,000. The Coptic Church is known to have historical roots in Libya long before the Arabs advanced from Egypt. The Roman Catholics have a large number as well, with 50,000 members. Orthodox communities other than that of the Egyptian Copts include the Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, and the Greek Orthodox. There is one Anglican congregation in Tripoli, made up mostly of African immigrant workers, that belongs to the Egyptian Anglican diocese. The Anglican bishop of Libya has his seat in Cairo There is also a priest in Sabha.
Today, Libyan Christians are disproportionately impacted by the conflict in the country. Their numbers have dwindled, and their safety is compromised. Nevertheless, they continue to worship and pray, although in secret. However, they continue to hope that all of North Africa will return to a safe, multi-faith region.
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