Lone guard at Canadian's Libyan gravesite no match for Islamist mobs

BENGHAZI, LIBYA — The Globe and Mail

Gravestones are seen damaged by an Islamist group in protest at the burning of the Koran by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, in Benghazi Military Cemetery February 24, 2012. The cemetery, which is home to soldiers who died during the second world war, was built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. (© Esam Al-Fetori / Reuters/REUTERS)

With his 9-millimetre pistol tucked in his belt, bleary-eyed volunteer guard Naser al-Werfali is the last line of defence for the windswept graves of the “Desert Rats” who defeated the Nazis in North Africa.

More than 150 graves, including that of a Canadian war hero, were smashed or desecrated last year by a mob of Islamist extremists who invaded the Commonwealth war cemetery in Benghazi. Months later, the cemetery was attacked again, wreaking further destruction to the graves and memorial crosses.

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Now the lone guard is asking for help. “As long as I’m alive, I’ll protect this place,” he told an early morning visitor in February, as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “I keep asking for more support and security, and nobody helps. I’m risking my life, and nobody cares.”

The assaults on the cemetery, where at least nine Canadians are among the 1,200 soldiers buried or commemorated, are a sign of the persistent power of the hard-line Islamist militias that control much of Libya since the demise of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Nobody has been brought to justice for the destruction of the war graves. The Islamists operate with impunity. They are a small minority in Libya, yet they are so heavily armed and aggressive that few people are willing to tangle with them, and the Libyan government is too weak to restrain them.

With their purist views on religion, radical Islamists have attacked Coptic and Orthodox churches, assaulted priests, fired grenades at Red Cross offices that were accused of proselytizing and destroyed dozens of shrines of the Sufi sect of Islam. Under the influence of the same ideology, Libyan military authorities arrested more than 50 Egyptian Copts and other foreign Christians in Benghazi on suspicion of proselytizing or distributing Christian pamphlets.

This year alone, a Coptic church in Misrata was bombed, killing two Egyptian Christians, and a Coptic church in Benghazi was torched, nearly killing its priest.

The Canadian government is among those who have protested against the attacks. “Canada is deeply concerned about the recent attacks on religious minorities in Libya and condemns the recent burning of a Coptic Christian church in Benghazi,” said a statement last month by Michael Grant, the Canadian ambassador to Libya.

When the mob attacked the Benghazi war cemetery in February last year, one of the headstones that they smashed was on the grave of Flying Officer Martin Northmore, a pilot from Toronto whose fighter plane crashed in 1943 as he was escorting a convoy in the Allied campaign against the Nazi forces in North Africa.

Before going overseas, Mr. Northmore was stationed on Prince Edward Island, where he had eloped while on leave. The RCAF officer, who died right before his 26th birthday, was buried inside Benghazi War Cemetery.

That month, the Toronto Star reported, his aunt, Leila Bishopp Martin, wrote a poem titled Broken Fight mourning his loss.

Your love so fond – your spirit true and gay,

Soared high to reach the stars beyond the night;

But groping still – along our dusty way –

We search the skies, above a broken flight.

A video posted on YouTube shows a mob of armed men deliberately toppling the yard’s gravestones, targeting Christian and Jewish graves, and destroying a large “Cross of Sacrifice” memorial. “Crazy people did it – extremists with beards,” Mr. al-Werfali said. “The extremists don’t like to see crosses.”

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, based in Britain, promised to replace the destroyed headstones and memorial cross, but Benghazi was considered too dangerous for foreign workers so the restoration was delayed for most of the past 14 months. A replacement cross and headstones were sent to the cemetery to be installed, but the cross was attacked again and smashed into rubble.

Leaders of Libya Shield, one of the biggest Islamist militias in Benghazi, deny any knowledge of the cemetery attacks. They said the attacks were “totally wrong” – the work of “illiterate” people. But they could not explain how the mob was able to assault the cemetery so openly, in broad daylight, with nobody stopping them and nobody punished for the attack, and then were able to repeat the assault a few months later.

Although the Islamist radicals are a minority of public opinion in Libya, their military muscle and ability to intimidate their rivals could be crucial over the next year as Libya tries to draft a post-Gadhafi constitution. A key question is whether the constitution will enshrine Islamic sharia law as the supreme law of the land.

The attacks on Christian and Sufi sites are part of a larger struggle for power by the Islamists across Libya, observers say. “Behind the scenes, they’re trying to take control of the government, the country,” said Abdullah Banun, a prominent Sufi lawyer and head of a Sufi teaching centre in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

Mr. Banun, who has endured death threats and attacks on his family, says the anti-Sufi campaign is spearheaded by Salafist radicals who follow the agenda of extremists in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “They’ve already succeeded in taking control of the mosques,” he said in an interview. “They’ve expelled many imams and replaced them with younger imams who agree with them. They’re all filled with Salafist ideas, and they’re strongly attacking the Sufis.”

Some towns in eastern Libya, such as the town of Derna near Benghazi, have turned into “Islamist emirates” under the control of the radicals, Mr. Banun said. “They don’t want the country to stabilize. Whether they seize power or not, they’re very organized and they have weapons, and the Libyan military can’t stop them. My biggest fear is that they’ll take over the country. Their understanding of sharia law is just chopping off hands.”

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