(Beirut) – Sufi religious sites are under assault in Libya, with two mosques in Tripoli heavily damaged by unidentified forces over the past two months, Human Rights Watch said today.
On November 28, 2017, unidentified assailants set fire to Zawiyat Sheikha Radiya, a historic Sufi mosque in Tripoli, heavily damaging it. This attack follows the October 20 destruction of Sidi Abu Gharara, another historic Sufi mosque in Tripoli. Sufism is a form of mysticism that some Muslims follow. Some other Muslims condemn Sufism, and the veneration of the tombs of Sufi spiritual leaders as heterodox.
“Successive interim authorities since the 2011 uprising and across Libya have failed to protect Libya’s Sufi religious sites from attacks and destruction by extremist militias,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The unpunished attacks on Sufi mosques are endangering one of Libya’s historic minority communities.”
Since 2011, armed groups across Libya, motivated by religious ideology, have attacked and destroyed dozens of Sufi religious sites, including mosques, shrines, tombs, and libraries containing ancient scriptures. Armed groups have kidnapped and killed Sufi adherents, including sheikhs, with impunity. The November 28 attack came on the eve of the feast marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.
The October attack on the Sufi mosque in al-Ghararat neighborhood took place during several days of clashes between the Special Deterrence Force (SDF), which is linked to the Interior Ministry for the internationally recognized Government of National Accord, and local armed groups that the SDF accused of drug-trafficking. A religious scholar with ties to the Sufi community in Tripoli said it was the SDF, which had gained control of the neighborhood, that intentionally damaged the 16th-century Sidi Abu Gharara Sufi mosque. On October 20, the SDF issued a statement denying responsibility and pledging to hold those responsible to account.
While the SDF has denied responsibility, neither of the two governments vying for legitimacy, territorial control, and international support, has condemned recent attacks against Sufi sites, nor moved resolutely to stop them. Previous interim authorities were equally dismissive of these attacks, and at the height of them in 2012 the interior minister at the time refused to intervene under the pretext of not wanting “to kill people over a grave.”
In September, the family of Abdelmatloub al-Sarhani, a Sufi civil activist from Benghazi, said in a news interview that unidentified forces in eastern Libya had kidnapped al-Sarhani due to his religious beliefs. He remains missing. According to the news site Al Wasat, 21 followers of Sufism, including al-Sarhani, were kidnapped by unidentified forces in eastern Libya between August 1 and 27. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify the names or the number of those kidnapped.
The same Sufi-affiliated religious scholar, who met with Human Rights Watch in Tripoli on October 28, said attacks against Sufis and Sufi sites have become widespread, particularly since 2012, resulting in fear and intimidation among the Sufi community and leading some to leave Libya for fear of persecution.
The attacks on Sufi sites began in October 2011 with the destruction of the al-Masry shrine in Tripoli, and continued the next month with an attack on the Girgaresh cemetery in Tripoli, destroying tombstones, and damage to the Sidi Nasr shrine also in Tripoli.
In January 2012, an armed group damaged the Sidi Obeid cemetery and the tomb of Sidi Obeid, a figure revered by Sufis, both in Benghazi. In July 2012, assailants detonated an explosive device at the Sahaba Mosque in the eastern city of Derna, which resulted in damage to the mosque. On August 24, 2012, unidentified assailants attacked the Sidi Abdul-Salam al-Asmar al-Fituri mosque in Zliten, inflicting heavy damage and destroying 700-year-old texts. The shrine of Sidi Ahmed Zaroug in Misrata was also destroyed in August 2012.
On August 25, 2012, an armed group attacked the Sidi Sha’ab mosque in the center of Tripoli in the presence of law enforcement units from the now-dissolved Supreme Security Committee, which at the time reported to the Interior Ministry. Using bulldozers, the attackers destroyed parts of the mosque and some of the tombstones inside. On August 28, 2012, armed assailants used bulldozers to damage extensively the Uthman Basha mosque in Tripoli’s old town. The attack destroyed 30 graves within the compound. The historic site, which serves as a school of religious learning, also includes a library that was looted and damaged.
As a result of armed conflicts in both eastern and western Libya, central authority collapsed, and three competing governments emerged, now reduced to two. These are the Interim Government based in the eastern city of al-Bayda, which is aligned with the Libyan National Army and supported by the House of Representatives, and the United Nations-backed, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. Key institutions, most notably law enforcement and the judiciary, are dysfunctional in most parts of the country, and basic services have collapsed. Armed groups with a Salafist ideology have spread in Libya and are notably part of both forces in east and west.
Other religious monitories in Libya remain at risk from attacks.
In July 2017, the Supreme Fatwa Committee under the General Authority for Endowments and Islamic Affairs, the religious authority of the Interim Government, issued a religious edict or fatwa stating that ‘Ibadis, a minority sect of Islam, were “a misguided and aberrant group. They are Kharijites with secret beliefs and infidels without dignity.” Kharijites is used to describe Muslims who rebelled against the Caliphate in the early ages of Islam.
In February 2015, an armed group that pledged allegiance to the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), executed 21 people, most of them Egyptian Coptic Christians held captive by the group because of their religion.
The UN special mandate holders for freedom of religion, cultural rights and minority issues in 2012 condemned the destruction of Sufi religious and historic sites in Libya.
The director-general of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Irina Bokova, also voiced her deep concern in 2012 about attacks against places “of religious and cultural significance.”
As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Libya is obligated to 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. Authorities 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.