Canada has a role

  • October 25, 2011

The death of dictator Moammar Gadhafi has silenced the guns and heralded a homecoming for 600 Canadians who participated in NATO sorties over Libya. But Gadhafi’s brutal exit should not mark the end of Canadian engagement in the North Africa nation.

Like the days that followed the overthrow of repression in Iraq and Egypt, Libya is entering uncertain and potentially dangerous times, particularly for its religious minorities. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s removal sparked widespread persecution and a mass exodus of Christians. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow has emboldened Muslim extremists to terrorize Coptic Christians.

Libya’s Christian roots go back to the early Church. When Gadhafi took power in 1969, the state seized several churches and turned Tripoli’s Catholic cathedral into a mosque. Yet Christianity was not outlawed. The Libyan dictator, like Mubarak and Hussein, allowed all Christians to practise their faith. Public prayer and evangelization were prohibited, but Libya’s estimated 200,000 Christians could worship freely in their churches.

At the outset of the rebellion, Libya’s six million people included an estimated 100,000 Catholics. Many were foreigners or migrants who fled in droves during eight months of fighting. Those who stayed, primarily in Tripoli and Benghazi, are served by two bishops, about 20 priests and 60 nuns.

This religious minority is now living uneasily as the nation attempts to evolve from a society ruled by a cult of personality to one governed by rule of law. Already there are concerns because the transitional government of Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, Gadhafi’s former justice minister, has declared the coming constitution will be founded on Islam.

As a free nation, that is of course Libya’s right. But it would be a betrayal of the  West’s military and financial support if Libya replaced one form of tyranny with another. So far, the transitional government has indicated no plans to build an Islamist theocracy. It broadly endorses a constitution that enshrines such democratic principles as justice, equality and respect for human rights.

Yet the haste to make Islamic faith a building block for civic regeneration should sound alarms among nations such as Canada. It is a reminder that the West retains a vital role in Libya. The evolving nation will need mentors to help it construct democratic institutions, establish rule of law and ingrain respect for human rights, including respect for religious freedom. An entire generation has been raised without experiencing these values.

Gadhafi held Libya under virtual house arrest for four decades. His death has opened a door for the Libyan people to welcome the embrace of liberty. But they will need help to construct a new society that is a repudiation of the tyranny Gadhafi represented. Canada has an obligation to help Libya find that path. Among many, Libya’s Christians are counting on it.

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