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The Mideast

Libya's lurch toward Shariah sends chill through Christian community

  • Libya Protest.jpg

    December 27, 2013: In Benghazi, people hold signs during a demonstration against what the protesters said was the decision of the National Congress to extend the period of their stay in power. The temporary government recently passed legislation that make Sharia Law the dominate governing body. (REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori)

  • Ronald Smith.jpg

    American chemistry teacher Ronald Smith was shot and killed wile jogging in Benghazi last month. Some have speculated that he was murdered by Islamic militants for his Christian faith. (AP)

Libya's recent edict that its coming constitution will be based on Shariah law has sent a chill through the North African nation's small Christian community.

Libya's Coptic Christians, who number about 300,000, or 5 percent of the population, were allowed to practice their faith under dictator Muammar Qaddafi. But since the strongman was ousted from power, and ultimately killed, Muslim fundamentalists have increasingly filled the power void. Last month, the national assembly voted in favor of making Koranic law, or Shariah, the basis of all legislative decisions, meaning Islam will shape all future banking, criminal and financial cases.

"... Christians and others in the Middle East have every right to want a free, democratic society.”

- Patrick Sookhdeo, The Barnabus Fund

“Islamic law is the source of legislation in Libya,” stated the General National Congress in a statement released shortly after the vote was held. “All state institutions need to comply with this.”

A special committee has begun reviewing existing laws to ensure that they comply with Shariah, according to a recent report.

The emerging political and legal system's orientation, combined with the rise of militants in the oil-rich nation, has left Christians feeling like the promise of democracy in the wake of Qaddafi's fall has been broken.

“NATO went to war in Libya on the basis of a full democracy,” Patrick Sookhdeo, international director for human rights group The Barnabus Fund, told FoxNews.com. “But what we have ended up with is a fractured government in which religious extremism of the worst kind has now taken over the government.”

“The concern is that this conflict has produced the exact opposite of a democratic government,” he added.

Sookhdeo adds that the recent legislation will have a serious effect on those in Libya who desire a fair and just society --especially those in the country who are not of the Muslim faith. The status and rights of women will have to be addressed in Libya's future constitution, analysts say.

Sookhdeo likened Libya's situation to what happened in Egypt after longtime leader Hosni Mubarak was replaced by Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president who in turn was ousted by the military after he was seen as pushing the nation toward Islamic rule.

“They [Christians] will not have full citizenship,” he said, referring to the recent ouster of Muslim Brotherhood backed President Morsi when his administration attempted to implement similar legislation.

Christian workers, including Copts who come from Egypt in search of work, have been targeted since Qaddafi's ouster in October 2011. Earlier this year, Libyan authorities reportedly released four Egyptian missionaries who had been arrested for proselytizing. A fifth Egyptian Christian, Ezzat Atallah, died while in prison. Their supporters say all they did was possess images of the cross for their own spiritual reflection.

The danger for Christians and other non-Muslims in Libya was underscored again last month when an American teacher was murdered. Ronnie Smith, 33, of Texas, who was teaching chemistry at Benghazi’s International School, was shot to death on Dec. 5 while jogging. The killing highlighted persistently tenuous security in the eastern Libyan city where U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens was killed during an attack on the embassy Sept. 11, 2012.

There were no credible claims of responsibility, but it is believed that Islamic militants active in Benghazi were responsible for Smith’s murder. It came after an Al Qaeda spokesman publicly called upon Libyans to attack U.S. interests everywhere as revenge for Special Forces snatching an Al Qaeda suspect off the streets of Tripoli last October.

Many have speculated that Smith may have been killed because of his Christian faith and how he spoke about it with Muslims and his students in Libya.

Sookhdeo said that the recent legislation could have a severe effect not only within Libya, but beyond its borders as well. He noted that Sookhdeo says that Libya’s southern border is under Al Qaeda control and arms are being filtered into Syria at an alarming rate.

“We have a potential regional problem," Sookhdeo said. "And Christians and others in the Middle East have every right to want a free, democratic society.”

Persecution, violence, and even the murdering of Christians have been on the rise in the Middle East as of late.

In March 2012, Jeremiah Small, a resident of Washington state who was working as a teacher in Iraq, was shot by one of his students. The motive was not clear, but the pupil had threatened to kill him for his religious views a day earlier after a heated discussion broke out in the class. Just a few days later an another American teacher was killed in Yemen after being shot eight times by Islamic militants.

Joel Shrum, 29, was killed by members of the Supporters of Sharia -- which also operates in Libya -- who issued a message saying that the murder occurred, “as a response to the campaign of Christian proselytizing that the West has launched against Muslims.”