Advice for South African missionaries: For God’s sake, steer clear of Libya

By Simon Allison 19 February 2013

One South African and three other foreigners have been detained by Libyan authorities in the none-too-stable city of Benghazi. Their alleged crime? Preaching the Word of God (the Christian God, that is), in a country where it’s explicitly unwelcomed. SIMON ALLISON explains why this was not such a good plan.

There may be some ideas that are sillier than going to Benghazi on a mission to convert heathen natives to Christianity, but I can’t think of many. And so, if initial reports are correct and four foreigners – a South African among them – were indeed guilty of proselytising in Libya’s revolutionary capital then it’s not hard to see why they’ve ended up in a Libyan jail. In fact, they should consider themselves lucky they’re still around at all.

This is the story so far. On Sunday, as the rest of the country celebrated the second anniversary of the beginning of the protests which turned into the Libyan Revolution which eventually toppled Brother Leader Muammar Gaddafi, spokesman Hussein bin Hameida, of the Orwellian-sounding Preventive Security Unit in Benghazi, made an unexpected announcement.

“An Egyptian, a South African, a South Korean and a Swede who holds a US passport, were arrested on Tuesday at a printing house, where they were printing books calling for conversion to Christianity,” he told AFP. “Libya is a Muslim country and preaching another religion is a crime under Libyan law.”

Bin Hameid took this crime very seriously. “Proselytising is forbidden in Libya. We are a 100% Muslim country and this kind of action affects our national security,” he said to Reuters.

At the time of going to press, few other details had emerged. Even South African embassy in Libya was in the dark. “We know that a South African has been detained and there is an investigation going on,” said Mohammed Dangor, the ambassador, when contacted by the Daily Maverick. He acknowledged that the embassy was short on further details, but said that a consular official is going to Benghazi on Tuesday to investigate further and assist if possible.

Because of the scarcity of information, and because this is Benghazi, it’s not a good idea to assume that these initial reports are complete or even accurate. It was here, let’s not forget, the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, was killed by a vicious mob after being incited by that ridiculous anti-Islam propaganda film, only for it to emerge later, and contrary to media reports in almost every respected publication in the world, that the attack was a carefully planned and had nothing to do with the film whatsoever.

So, no assumptions. Instead, some advice for any wannabe missionaries who want to earn their place in heaven by shining the light of Jesus into the eyes of the Libyan heathens: don’t do it. Here’s why.

For a start, it’s dangerous. The embers of the Libyan Revolution are yet to settle, and the post-revolutionary period has been frequently disrupted by incidences of violence as various groups jostle for power, all desperate to claim their seat at the head table. Very few of the revolutionaries have been disarmed, meaning there are disproportionately large numbers of young, cocky, ill-trained men wandering around with lethal machinery – never a good combination. The central government in Tripoli has little to no grip over the rest of the country, and the rule of law is flexible at best and non-existent at worst. If the United States could not protect its ambassador, is a Bible going to do the trick?

Then there’s the issue of Christianity itself. Now, in the grander scheme of Islamic doctrine, Christians – along with Jews – are welcomed as ahl-al-kitab, or “people of the book”, recognising that they all share the same roots in the Old Testament and the Garden of Eden. And though Christianity is not particularly prevalent in Libya, there are long historical links between the country and the faith: the man who carried the cross of Jesus, Simon of Cyrene, was a Libyan. But these theological subtleties have been lost in the chaos of the revolution’s aftermath, during which Christian targets such as churches and graveyards have been repeatedly attacked by various groups looking to establish their Islamist credentials. The Christian Post reports that there were nearly 100,000 Christians in Libya before the Revolution – mostly Catholics and Copts – but many have subsequently fled. “Now only a few thousand remain,” said one Catholic priest.

I can see why all this is appealing for would-be missionaries. When better to spread the Word of God than when the country is in disarray, people are lost, and Christianity is victimised? This is the kind of suffering endured by the apostles, and it’s to deal with precisely his kind of hardship that the faith exists. That’s the theory, anyway, but the reality is a little more complicated, because missionary work is not just about your own life on the line, but inevitably risks others as well, especially other foreigners. Brash, insensitive proselytising – which characterises the gung-ho approach of many (but certainly not all) Christian organisations – often creates more animosity than goodwill, and increases hostility towards anyone who might be identified, rightly or wrongly, as a Christian. It also provides, in the twisted rationale of fundamentalist groups, a pretext for violence against foreigners.

Then there’s the whole legal thing. Yes, rule of law maybe a little hit and miss in Libya right now, but still on the statute books – and enthusiastically retained by the current government – is a Gaddafi-era law that makes missionary work illegal. The merits or otherwise of this law aren’t the question right now. The sentence, however, should be noted. “The maximum penalty is the death penalty. It’s a dangerous thing to do,” said Benghazi legal student Bilal Bettamer, speaking to the Guardian.

Missionary work is always difficult, and often dangerous, but the risks of operating in Libya right are surely too great to justify it, and the rewards slim to non-existent. No god likes to see lives wasted in vain. DM

Read more:

  • Libya arrests foreign ‘missionaries’, at the Guardian
  • Libya arrests four suspected Christian missionaries, at the Christian Post

Photo: Women and girls wave Libyan flags as they gather during celebrations commemorating the second anniversary of the country’s February 17 revolution, at Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli February 17, 2013. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny


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