Libya Imprisons American for Allegedly Proselytizing Christianity in Benghazi

March 25, 2013 - 7:12 PM

Ezzat Atallah

Egyptians protest the death of Ezzat Atallah, who died in a Libyan prison, in front of the Libyan embassy in Cairo. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - On Feb. 12, about two years after the U.S. government first militarily intervened in Libya to advance the cause of Libyan revolutionaries and five months after Libyan terrorists murdered Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans in that country, the post-revolutionary Libyan government arrested a U.S. citizen for allegedly “proselytizing” Christianity in Benghazi.

As of today, according to both a senior administration official and a State Department spokesperson, this U.S. citizen remains imprisoned in post-Qaddafi Libya.

The Libyan government also arrested seven other Christians in Benghazi in connection with the same alleged case of Christian proselytizing. These include a South African woman, a South Korean man and five Egyptian men.

One of the Egyptians, Ezzat Atallah, was tortured by the Libyans while in detention, according to an Egyptian human rights lawyer. Atallah later died in Libyan custody—from what an Egyptian official characterized as natural causes.

Atallah’s death and Libya’s detention of other Christian Egyptians sparked outrage in Egypt's Christian community and a demonstration at the Libyan embassy in Cairo.

However, Libya’s arrest and detention of an American Christian has thus far gone largely unnoted in the United States.

Al Jazeera first reported on Feb. 14 that the Libyans had arrested an American Christian. A BBC summary of the Al Jazeera report said: “The Libyan authorities have arrested a number of foreign nationals in the eastern city of Benghazi for allegedly proselytizing Christianity and operating secretly as part of a network led by an Egyptian man.”

Abd-al-Salam al Bargathi, identified as the head of the Libya’s “preventive security section” in Benghazi, reportedly told Al Jazeera: “Over 40,000 books with different titles were seized last night. We found out from reliable sources that the books came from Egypt and there is a funder [in] Benghazi.”

On Feb. 16, citing Libyan police spokesman Hussein bin Hamid, the Associated Press reported that Libya had arrested a South African, a South Korean, an Egyptian and a person who "held both Swedish and U.S. nationality." They were arrested, as the AP put it, on "suspicion of distributing books about Christianity and proselytizing."

On Feb. 18, the Voice of America, a news outlet funded by the U.S. government, also reported that the Libyans had arrested four Christians, including an American, and that if they were found guilty of proselytizing they could be executed.

“During the weekend, four Christians--a Swedish-American, an Egyptian, a South African and a South Korean--were arrested in the eastern city of Benghazi on suspicion of proselytizing and distributing religious literature,” said the Voice of America. “If they are found guilty of charges leveled against them, they could face the death penalty.”

On March 1, Agence France Presse reported that Libyan authorities in Benghazi had arrested about 50 additional Egyptians for “suspect activities,” including possessing Bibles and other Christian literature.

"Forty-eight Egyptian traders who worked in the Benghazi municipal market have been arrested based on reports of suspect activities,” an unnamed Libyan security official told AFP. The news service reported: “He said they were found in possession of a quantity of Bibles, texts encouraging conversion to Christianity, and images of Christ and the late Pope Shenuda of Egypt's Coptic Christians, none of which were for ‘personal use.’ But the main charge was illegal entry into Libya, he said.”

Christian Broadcasting Network reported on March 11 that when the Libyan authorities arrested the first Egyptian on Feb. 12, they had also obtained his cell phone, which included the names of four other Egyptian Christians whom the Libyans then went out and arrested. One of these was Ezzat Atallah.

On March 10, as reported by the Associated Press, an unnamed Egyptian Foreign Ministry official announced that Atallah had died in a Libyan prison. “The diplomat says Ezzat Atallah, who suffered from diabetes and heart ailments, likely died of natural causes,” AP reported.

But the next day, Naguib Guebrayel, a lawyer who runs the Egyptian Union for Human Rights, told AFP that Atallah had “died after being tortured with other detainees." That day, March 11, Atallah’s death sparked a demonstration in front of the Libyan embassy in Cairo.

The next day, Nazih al-Naggary, a deputy spokesman for the Egyptian foreign ministry told AFP that Egypt had “been assured” of the release of 55 Egyptians held in Libya, but that four others would remain in Libyan custody.

"Our embassy has been assured of the release of 55 people and is actively working to seek the release of four others who are still in detention," al-Naggary told AFP.

CNSNews.com on Monday asked the administration what the U.S. government was doing to help the remaining Christians who had been imprisoned in Libya and what particularly the U.S. government was doing to free the U.S. citizen imprisoned there.

“We can confirm that an American citizen has been arrested in Libya and that State Department has consular access,” a senior administration official told CNSNews.com. “Because of privacy considerations, we are unable to comment further.”

"We can confirm that a U.S. citizen has been arrested in Libya," a State Department spokesperson told CNSNews.com. "We are providing all appropriate consular assistance. Because of privacy considerations, we are unable to comment further."

The State Department’s latest report on religious freedom in Libya says that Libya’s "interim constitution" now protects religious freedom and that the Libyan government does not censor religious materials brought into the country.

“The interim constitution protects religious freedom, although some laws and policies restrict religious freedom,” said the State Department report.

“The new government no longer censors religious material that enters the country," said the report.