Critical Analysis: Egyptians Protest Christian’s Death in Libyan Prison

Protestors burn a flag belonging to the Libyan Embassy to protest the death of an Egyptian Christian suspected of proselytizing in Libya. (Ahramonline)
Protestors burn a flag belonging to the Libyan Embassy to protest the death of an Egyptian Christian suspected of proselytizing in Libya. (Ahram Online)

On March 11, Egyptian protestors burned a flag belonging to the Libyan Embassy in Cairo to protest the death of an Egyptian Christian suspected of proselytizing in Libya. The Egyptian Christian, Ezzat Atallah, died in prison where he was detained in Libya with four other Egyptians – all charged with spreading Christianity.  While the Egyptian Foreign Ministry claimed that Ezzat Atallah died of natural causes, protestors suspected that poor prison conditions and possible torture contributed to Atallah’s death in Libyan prison.  The Coptic Christian protestors, which numbered around 100, chanted “the killing of Copts is illegal,” while some masked the Libyan flag with an Egyptian one. In response, Libyan nationals inside the embassy attempted to burn the Egyptian flag and raise two more Libyan flags.

Last week, fifty-five Egyptians suspected of spreading Christianity, the same crime for which Ezzat Atallah was detained, were released from Libya. Thirty-five of the released prisoners were deported for illegal entry into Libya, while the remaining twenty were allowed to stay.  The protests come amid reports that one hundred Coptic Christians are being held by the “ultraconservative” Islamist Libyan militia.  Currently, four foreigners are still being held in Libyan prison for espionage and proselytizing including a Swedish-American, South Korean, South African and an Egyptian.

The Coptic Youth Front began the protest when it announced that it would start its sit-in by the embassy. The Youth Front simultaneously demanded that Atallah’s family be appropriately compensated for his death and that the other prisoners arrested on the same charges be released and returned back to Egypt. The Youth Front stated that they would not move until this had occurred. The previous day, Atallah’s brother spoke to the media stating that his brother had been tortured after moving from Benghazi.  Protestors were outspoken about Libya’s actions.  “Egyptians should not be arrested arbitrarily (in Libya) just because they are Christian,” Sameh Saad, a lawyer, told one media source.  “Atallah had a business there and his wife and children.  Why would he jeopardize his life?”  Others protested to stand up for the rights of Christians globally, especially in strict Islamic nations where Christian animosity is the greatest.  “I joined the vigil here to call for the release of Christians detained for simply possessing Bibles and portraits (of Jesus),” Mina Karas, a university student, told the media.  Karas went on to claim that Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi must do more to help those detained in Libya.

The Egyptian church is in charge of wrapping up the legal ties of Atallah’s death.  Bishop Pachomius, a leading pope of the patriarchic Coptic Church, has been in touch with officials in Egypt, the Egyptian Embassy in Libya, and the ministry of foreign affairs.  He recommended that the victim’s family contact the Egyptian embassy in Libya to complete the legal affairs of Atallah’s death and to discuss logistics of transporting his body from Libya to Egypt.  As more attention is drawn to Libya for detaining Christians for “proselytizing,” hopefully the ultra-conservative Libyan government will be deterred from such harsh punishment against Christians who simply possess Bibles.

Dan Warhola is a 3L at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and the Executive Editor of the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.