Libya’s population is approximately 6.4 million. The population is estimated to be 97% Sunni Muslim, with almost all non-Muslims being expatriate workers, primarily from Sub-Saharan African countries, Egypt and the Philippines. Instability since 2011 has led to a shrinking of expatriate communities. The largest churches serving expatriates are the Coptic Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. There are also a small number of Eastern Orthodox churches, an Anglican church and Union Protestant churches as well as informal fellowship groups.
Libya’s interim Constitution of 2011 establishes Islam as the state religion and Islamic law as the main source of legislation. The Constitutional Drafting Assembly, which began work on a new Constitution in 2014, has recommended that the status of Islamic law be strengthened as the only source of legislation – the work of this Assembly has been disrupted by the continuing political and security crisis in Libya, which has also severely undermined the rule of law. While the constitution asserts that there is no discrimination amongst Libyans based on religion and provides that non-Muslims have freedom to practice their religious rites, in practice the legal framework contains few more detailed protections for religious freedom. All Libyans are assumed to be Muslim, with no scope for changing religion. Personal status matters are determined according to Islamic law. The Penal Code prescribes harsh punishments for perceived attacks or insults against religion.
Libya acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on 15th May 1970. The ICCPR upholds the right to freedom of religion, including the right to hold a religion of one’s choice and the right to manifest that religion (Article 18). It also upholds the rights of minorities and the principle of non-discrimination. Libya’s accession to the ICCPR was made without any reservation limiting its commitment to religious freedom.
Key challenges faced by expatriate Christians in Libya primarily derive from the ongoing political and security crisis and the lack of application of the rule of law. Within this security vacuum, extremist groups have perpetrated atrocities against expatriate Christians – including the murders of 51 Christians, predominantly Egyptian and Ethiopian, shown in footage released by Daesh (so-called ‘Islamic State’) in February and April 2015. There have also been violent attacks against church buildings in Libya’s main cities. Libyan nationals or other Muslims who choose to leave Islam are likely to face strong family and societal pressure. In extreme cases those who leave Islam can face violent responses from family or community members.