Muslims in Tripoli torched a private library belonging to a Greek Orthodox priest because of a perceived insult. The library, opened up for locals to use freely, was the private collection of 72-year-old Farther Ibrahim Sarrouj who has overseen the Al-Saeh (Travelers’) Library in the Libyan capital since 1972.
There are conflicting reports about what caused the incident. The Daily Star, a Lebanese newspaper, reports that a fatwa or an Islamic legal pronouncement has been issued against Father Sarrouj because of an article he wrote which was published on a Danish website in 2010. The French news agency, AFP, has a slightly different story. Their account says a pamphlet was discovered hidden inside one of the books in the library. That pamphlet, considered blasphemous, triggered a scuffle which was followed by the burning of the library. Still other anonymous sources imply that the burning followed a long-term dispute between Father Sarrouj and a local businessman who had expressed an interest in buying the library building and grounds.
The priest had met with Islamic leaders in Tripoli prior to the fire. He reportedly was making an attempt to clear his name. A demonstration that had been planned by organizers to protest the accusation of blasphemy had been called off according to AFP.
Tripoli’s citizens are extremely upset that their library did not have better protection. A government official told AFP that the security detail tasked with guarding the library in the wake of recent threats, left the property moments before the attack to buy cigarettes. Officers now in place have been instructed to guard the library continuously.
As bad as the fire was, it is just the most recent trouble in the seaside city. Tripoli has seen the bulk of the fallout from the Syrian war. There has been tension and conflict between the city’s Alawite minority, which supports the Syrian government, and the Sunni majority which is pro-rebel. The result has been that much of the Syrian civil war is inflicting casualties on the Libyan side of the border.
Robert Fadel, Tripoli’s representative in the Libyan Parliament, said the police know who was responsible for the attack. “The security agencies know the perpetrator and should arrest him…There will be no political cover for anyone,” he said.
Following the blaze, many locals joined together in cleaning up the library. Local supporters also have launched a fund to rebuilding the structure. Approximately 60,000 of the 80,000 books in the library are believed to have been damaged.
Civil defense teams were called out to help extinguish the fire. AFP reported that there were more books damaged by the water used to fight the fire than were damaged by the flames.
The library was very popular. One source, who chose to remain anonymous, described Sarrouj as a person who loves books and was able to help people find “every single title.”
While forgiving the perpetrators, Sarrouj told the Daily Star that he had received amazing support from Christians and Muslims and is reveling in the harmony this tragedy has generated. He is not interested in finding the attackers. “That is for the security forces,” he said. “The government brings them to justice, not me. I am only here to love them. I am here to carry them on my shoulders.” Sarrouj intends to rebuild the torched library soon.
By Jerry Nelson