- (Photo: Reuters / Louafi Larbi)
Churches in Libya have lost large numbers of worshippers in the months since conflict broke out in the north African country.
One church in the city of Benghazi, the main stronghold of the rebel forces, has seen its congregation drop from around 1,000 to 40.
The services at the church still take place despite only a handful of the worshippers still being in town.
Its pastor, Father Polla Eshak, told Reuters that it is not fear of persecution that is driving Christians out of Libya.
Despite Libya being a dictatorship and Muslim-majority country, Christians have traditionally enjoyed religious freedom in Libya.
Father Eshak does not expect that to change as so far, they have enjoyed the same treatment under the rebels that have assumed leadership in the east.
“Gaddafi’s administration gave us freedom and the next one will too, judging by the way we’ve been treated here,” he said.
What is making Christians leave the country in large numbers is the same as for others – the war.
Sylvester Magro, the Catholic bishop of Benghazi, told Reuters he had gone from overseeing some 10,000 Catholics in east Libya to caring for around a few hundred now.
“For the moment, it is the conflict that worries us. It’s a bad situation, tension. The future is unclear. The present time is taken up in prayer for the end of the conflict,” he said.
An estimated 500,000 people have crossed the borders into Tunisia, Egypt and other neighboring countries.
Those who have remained behind are facing hardship as a result of the damage to infrastructure, basic services, and food and medical supplies.
The United Nations is asking the international community to donate $408 million to provide humanitarian assistance to some 2.1 million people affected by the conflict.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said on Wednesday, "The conflict, the breakdown of state infrastructure, and shortages of cash and fuel are causing problems for the population of Libya.
"Widespread shortages are paralyzing the country in ways which will gravely impact the general population in the weeks and months ahead; particularly the poorest and most vulnerable."