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Islam in Libya

According to U.S. government estimates, the population of Libya is 6.5 million. Ninety-seven percent is Sunni Muslim and the remaining 3 percent of the population includes Christians, Hindus, Bahais, Ahmadi Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews. Many members of the Amazigh ethnic minority are Ibadi Muslims; nearly all other non-Sunni Muslims are foreign residents. Small Christian communities consist almost exclusively of sub-Saharan African and Egyptian migrants and a small number of U.S. and European workers. Bishops in Tripoli, Misrata, and Benghazi lead an estimated 50,000 Coptic Christians who are mostly Egyptian foreign residents. Roman Catholic clergy are present in larger cities, working primarily in hospitals, orphanages, and with the elderly or physically impaired. A priest in Tripoli and a bishop resident in Tunis lead the Anglican community. A Greek Orthodox archbishop in Tripoli and priests in Tripoli and Benghazi serve approximately 80 regular Orthodox churchgoers. The Ukrainian embassy in Tripoli also maintained a small Orthodox church for Tripoli’s Russian-speaking population.

There are nondenominational, evangelical Unity churches in Tripoli and Benghazi, as well as small Unity congregations located throughout the country. Nondenominational churches in Tripoli serve primarily African and Filipino migrant workers. The overwhelming majority of Libya’s Jewish population, estimated at 40,000, fled the country between 1948 and 1967. David Gerbi, a Libyan Jew active in the exiled Jewish community in Italy, estimates that there are around 200,000 Libyan Jews and their descendants living outside of the country. While there are reports of some Jews remaining, there are no known estimates of the current population. Representatives from the Jewish diaspora are unable to return to reopen the synagogue in Tripoli due to security concerns.

The interim constitution protects religious freedom and, in practice, the government generally respected religious freedom. The Transitional National Council (TNC) issued a temporary constitutional declaration in August 2011 that protects freedom of religion, the first constitutional protection for freedom of religion since 1969. The popularly elected General National Congress (GNC) assumed parliamentary functions from the TNC in August, the current prime minister was selected in October, and his cabinet was sworn in on November 14. The government remains bound by the August 2011 constitutional declaration until a new constitution is drafted and passes both a vote in the GNC and a public referendum. The interim constitution states that Islam is the state religion and Islamic law is the principal source of legislation, but that non-Muslims are accorded the freedom to practice their beliefs.

The Ministry for Awqaf and Islamic Affairs administers mosques, supervises clerics, and has primary responsibility for ensuring all religious practices within the country conform to state-approved Islamic norms. The TNC created the office of the Grand Mufti in May, appointing a cleric to be the leading religious scholar in the country and providing him with an office and staff to issue fatwas, or religious rulings, as the Mufti deems necessary. These fatwas carry no legal weight.

The Ministry for Awqaf and Islamic Affairs provided imams with texts for Friday sermons, which often contained political and social messages. The internal security agencies that in the past closely monitored and controlled citizens’ religious activities were dissolved in 2011 and not reinstated. The government ended the Qadhafi-era practice of arresting imams who delivered their own Friday sermons instead of reading the government-sanctioned texts. The government permitted religious scholars to form independent organizations that issue fatwas (religious rulings) and provide advice to followers.

Religious instruction in Islam is required in public schools and in private schools that admit citizens, but there is no in-depth instruction on other religions available in the curricula. The government does not issue information on the religious affiliation of children in public schools, but there are no reports of children transferring to private schools for alternative religious instruction.

Sharia (Islamic law) governs family matters for Muslims, including inheritance, divorce, and the right to own property. Under this body of law, a non-Muslim woman who marries a Muslim man is not required to convert to Islam, although many do so; however, a non-Muslim man must convert to Islam to marry a Muslim woman. Citizens must be at least 40 years old to perform the Hajj. The Ministry for Awqaf and Islamic Affairs administers non-Muslim family law issues, although without a parallel legal framework. The ministry draws upon neighboring countries’ family law precedents for non-Muslims.

There were reports of societal abuses based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Two Egyptian nationals were killed in an attack on a Coptic Church in Misrata in December. Salafist groups vandalized and destroyed Sufi religious sites on several occasions, including most prominently in downtown Tripoli and Zliten in August. Salafists are fundamentalist Sunni Muslims. Salafists also threatened Sufi individuals and religious sites.

Government authorities roundly condemned violence against Sufi religious sites. On 07 September 2012, security forces repelled an attack on the Sidi al-Lafi mausoleum in Rajma. At other times the security response was wholly inadequate, as on August 25, when the SSC cordoned off the Sidi Sha’ab Mosque in downtown Tripoli as a Salafist group destroyed the site with heavy construction equipment in broad daylight. Authorities stated that after a small altercation with the attackers, the security forces chose not to intervene to avoid an escalation of violence.

The former Minister of Interior, Fawzi Abd al-Aal, resigned the day following the attacks, but later withdrew his resignation believing it would “complicate security.” The Grand Mufti, Sheikh Sadeq al-Ghariani, issued a fatwa condemning the desecration of graves and holy sites on 26 August 2012. Despite the public condemnation, there have been no known arrests or prosecutions in connection with attacks on Sufi sites.

A new fatwa issue October 15, 2013 by Libya’s top religious authority, the Grand Mufti, saying that all women teachers must veil their faces when instructing males who have reached puberty has prompted the anger of liberal activists, who fear this was the start of widespread educational gender segregation. Libya’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Sadik Al-Ghariani made the fatwa following a request from the Ministry of Education for advice on the issue as some schools had started to order women teachers to cover up. The mufti stopped short of saying that there should be total gender segregation but he counseled the ideal solution would be to segregate male and females altogether in schools and universities.

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Page last modified: 03-09-2014 19:50:55 ZULU