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(Beirut)– The Libyan government should urgently deploy security forces in numbers sufficient to protect Sufi religious sites and announce that people who attack these sites will be held accountable for these crimes.

In recent weeks, armed groups motivated by their religious views have attacked Sufi religious sites across the country, destroying several mosques and tombs of Sufi religious leaders and scholars. The government’s security forces have failed to stop the attacks and, in some cases, have stood by while the attacks took place, a pattern apparently endorsed by the interior minister. Authorities have made no arrests, as far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine.

“The government has failed both to protect sites sacred to Libyan Muslims who follow Sufi practices and to arrest those who have destroyed the tombs,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Inaction and impunity can only encourage further attacks.”

Mainstream Islamic scholars consider Sufism a practice of Islam that emphasizes esoteric and mystical elements. The followers pray over tombs of saints and ask for blessings, practices that some conservative Muslims reject as idolatry.

In the most recent attack, on August 28, 2012, armed assailants reportedly attacked the Uthman Basha mosque in Tripoli’s old town with heavy drills. The attack caused extensive damage and destroyed 30 graves within the compound. The historic site, which serves as a madrasa, a school of religious learning, also includes a library that the reports said was looted and damaged.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks on Sufi sites. Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel A’al was quoted describing them as “groups that have a strict Islamic ideology where they believe that graves and shrines must be desecrated.” It was an apparent reference to Salafists, Muslims who advocate a return to Islam, as they believe it was practiced in the days of the Prophet Muhammad.

Abdel A’al said on August 28 that forces under his authority would not intervene to protect Sufi sites if it meant using force against extreme Islamist groups, and that the matter should be solved among the religious groups themselves. “If all shrines in Libya are destroyed so we can avoid the death of one person [in clashes with security forces], then that is a price we are ready to pay,” he was quoted as saying.

“A government should not, in the name of avoiding clashes, give a carte blanche to the forces of violent intolerance,” Goldstein said. “Central authorities should be reining in – rather than empowering – the armed groups operating outside the law.”

Libya’s transitional authorities have failed to disarm or disband many of the armed groups and militias that were formed to fight Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s former leader, or those that have come into being since his fall.

Some senior government officials have condemned the attacks on the Sufi sites, including the president of the new General National Congress, Mohamed Al Magariaf, and Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagour.

In addition to the August 28 attack, a group attacked the Sidi Sha’ab mosque in the center of Tripoli on August 25 in the presence of law enforcement units that report to the Interior Ministry. Using bulldozers, the attackers destroyed parts of the mosque and some of the graves inside. Security forces surrounded the area where the attack was taking place but made no attempt to intervene, according to Reuters.

Assailants bombed the Sahaba Mosque in Derna in July, and on August 24, attacked the Sidi Abdul-Salam Al-Asmar Al-Fituri mosque in Zliten, inflicting heavy damage and destroying 700-year-old texts, according to a report from Reuters. The shrine of Sidi Ahmed Zaroug in Misrata was also destroyed in August.

The attacks on Sufi sites in Tripoli began in October 2011 with an assault on the Al-Masry shrine, from which the remains of two Muslim scholars, Abdul-Rahman al-Masri and Salem Abu Seif, were removed by assailants. In November 2011, attackers vandalized the Girgaresh cemetery and damaged the Sidi Nasr shrine.

An armed group attacked the Sidi Obaid cemetery in Benghazi in January and damaged the tomb of Sidi Obeid, a figure revered by Sufis, as well as other tombs.

The director-general of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Irina Bokova, has voiced her deep concern about the violence. In a statement on August 28, she said that, “Destroying places of religious and cultural significance cannot be tolerated,” and that, “Such acts must be halted, if Libyan society is to complete its transition to democracy.”

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Libya, the Libyan authorities must ensure the freedom of everyone either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to practice their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching. They are under a specific duty under this treaty to ensure that members of religious minorities can profess their religion in public in community with others. This means that all places of worship and religious importance should be protected when under threat.

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