If you were to walk in the ancient city of Cyrene today, you would catch a glimpse of Libya’s long and troubled history. It is considered a dangerous place to visit but rapacity attracts predators to this broken country, either to exploit its oil reserves or its political vacuum. To understand this troubled nation, we need to investigate its history and look to God for Libya’s future.
Libya is the fourth-largest country in Africa. Within the borders drawn by colonialism, several ethnic and tribal cultures coexist without a unifying factor of language or culture. Its population of 6.8 million, a mix of Berbers, Phoenicians, Greeks, Persians, Romans and Turks, have assimilated to the domination of Islam. The banner of Islam and ‘Arabity’ is seen as a unifying factor. The national identity has shifted drastically to be called, Al Djamhirya Al Arabya Al Libya (The Arab Libyan Republic). The official language is Arabic and the religion is Islam. The Joshua Project identifies 45 people groups in Libya, an estimated 6,152,000 unreached people.
We can trace the nations of North Africa from Phut son of Ham (Gen. 10:6). In Scripture we find references to Libya, Phut or Put, Lubim or Libyans and the city of Cyrene.1 Shishak hosted Jeroboam when he fled to Egypt (1 Kgs 11:40) and today, the Berbers celebrate Yenayer, a major holiday related to Shishak’s ascension to the throne of Egypt in 950bc.
In the 2nd century, the Roman Empire’s provinces included Creta and Cyrene (Libya). Over the centuries, Libyans have faced incessant waves of invaders. In the late 7th century, the Muslim armies swept across North Africa and in the 16th century, Libya and Egypt were under the Ottoman Empire. In 1882, the eastern border with Egypt was redefined by the British. However, Libya continued under the Ottomans until the Italian army took over in 1911. The western border with Tunisia was decided under the French in 1910, with their ruling Turkish counterparts. This complex history resulted in Libya’s diverse ethnic and social make-up.
Trade with the Mediterranean world influenced North African cultural and religious beliefs. Based on a shared value system, they worshipped deities like Ammon and Athena, and ancestral spirits. Over the centuries, their views and beliefs have mutated many times.
Judaism – Judgements on Israel led to many Jews emigrating to other regions. These Maghrebi and Sephardic Jewish communities lived in North Africa and influenced its culture until they were expelled in the 20th century.
Christianity – According to the Coptic tradition, Mark was born in Cyrene and founded the church in Alexandria and others in Africa. In the first few centuries, Alexandria, Carthage and Hippo were leading Christian cities. Tertulian, Cyprian, Perpetua, Felicity and Augustine of Hippo left a legacy of faithful service, and the memory of these heroes of faith has seen a recent resurgence in the hearts of Libyans. Henri Teissier recounted the struggle of Christians who were captured and enslaved. The year 1232 marked heavy persecution of Christians and by 1630 Libya was purged of its Christians, except for the consulates.2
Islam – The decline of the Roman Empire left a vacuum into which Islam rose. For 14 centuries Muslim armies subdued Jews and Christians, who suffered a great deal as they were purged from their homelands, leaving a firm Islamic hold over the region.
Edward Glenny wrote that in 1887 there was no evangelical missionary activity in Tripoli, and that there were meagre chances for preaching the gospel in the Ottoman Empire. Under Turkish scrutiny, missionaries were granted access for medical activity. In 1889 the Venables and the Reids were sent to Libya and 50,000 visits were made to their dispensary.3 By 1911 thousands of Italians had immigrated to the newly occupied territory. Later, North Africa Mission (NAM), now Arab World Ministries (AWM), merged with Pioneers and has had a significant impact in the region. Although the visible impact of the gospel is small, the seed is starting to bear fruit.
Plagued with Strife
UN sanctions imposed on Libya in 1992 left the country isolated. In 1969 Muamar el Gaddafi deposed the Western-backed king and established his own military regime. In Libya’s tumultuous history, Gaddafi’s rule brought a time of rest. He promised that Christian communities and Westerners would be protected; the reality was the opposite. Foreigners had to leave and by 1970 only a few remained. Gaddafi restricted Christian activity and only two official churches remained. In 2013, Coptic Christians were accused of being involved in the proclamation of the gospel; their church in Tripoli was hit twice within a week and burned down.
Libya’s doors remained closed until the Arab Spring swept across the region, taking its leaders by surprise and leading to the death of Gaddafi in 2011. Libya has since been plagued with strife; the chaos is indescribable. While two major factions are engaged in a merciless fight, extremist factions have taken advantage of the power vacuum, making Libya desolate with a stream of violence and hate. A jihadi group, Ansar Al Sharia, intensified its terrorist activities, including their attack on the American embassy on 11 September 2012. Their agenda to subdue Christians, infidels and the West is openly described in their propaganda magazine, Dabiq.
…the memory of these heroes of faith has seen a recent resurgence in the hearts of Libyans.
Ezzat Hakeem was one of four who were arrested on 13 February 2013; he was tortured and died on 10 March. Sherif Ramses, who owned a bookstore in Benghazi, was accused of providing Christian literature. As the Islamic militia investigated Ramses, they found a list of other believers who were also tracked down and arrested. In December 2015, the Libyan authorities unearthed the bodies of 34 Ethiopian Christians who were beheaded by Isis. The evil cruelty of such militants who destroy everything, including their own people, is incomprehensible.
Vulnerable Libyans are left to bear the consequences of their leaders’ political and ideological choices. People are deprived of fundamental rights and dignity. North Africans look across the Mediterranean to Western life. Immigrants, hoping to reach Italy, get arrested, jailed and beaten by Libyan authorities.
Hearing the Message
In recent years, several channels have begun broadcasting evangelical material and a reasonable number of viewers have indicated their interest. There have been conversions, and a few have found refuge in church, but most are too fearful to be open about their newfound faith. Even those who now live in the West believe it is too dangerous to disclose their new identity in Christ. However, Libyans are hearing the message and the hope we have in this trickle of conversions is enormous! These believers are in their infant stage and creative efforts are being made to teach and establish them in the faith, so that they can lead their own people and establish indigenous churches. The spread of the gospel cannot happen without the leading of the Holy Spirit and those whose lives have been transformed.
A Heart for Libyans
One of our workers visited Libya and reported: ‘From the plane I could see the darkness over the country. As we drove, almost every third of a mile people with guns stopped us and asked who we were and what we were doing. They could be police, army, IS, al Qaeda or anyone. You can see in the eyes of the soldiers that they are hungry for blood. I saw prisoners whom they sell or recruit into terrorist groups. The Libyan economy is destroyed, some don’t have food to eat; it’s a disaster! I asked God to show me how to pray. He showed me the children: the Lord is preparing a new generation in Libya.’
How will we respond to the cry of Libya? Do we share the Lord’s heart for those who are perishing? Christ called us to witness to all nations (Mt. 23:25; 24:14,44). Let us prayerfully intercede for Libya. Pray for Libyan believers to be salt and light, for discipleship that leads to growth and church planting in North Africa. Pray for Libyans to realise that as the descendants of Ham they have not been cut off, that God loves them so much that He gave His only Son Jesus Christ for them so that they may be saved and set free!