Last Updated 24 August 2020

Libya is a North African country of an estimated 6.9 million inhabitants, of which 90-95% are Sunni Muslims.1 The Amazigh ethnic minority counts some Ibadi Muslims and there are small Christian communities among sub-Saharan African and Egyptian migrants. Libya is the fourth largest African country by area and holds the world’s tenth-largest proven oil reserves. The country has been through tumultuous years since the Libyan uprising in 2011 and the civil war that followed.

This country is found to be in flux. Continuing political strife between secular and Islamist blocs means the constitution remains suspended. The rating conditions below reflect the state of the law prior to further dispute in 2014. The rating reflects that the situation for the non-religious is not improved, and discrimination is maintained by social inertia during the political turmoil.

Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination

Constitution and government

Libya has been in the grip of an ongoing civil war since Nato-backed forces overthrew Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011. Since mid-2014, political power has mainly been split between two rival governments in Tripoli and in Tobruk. The Tripoli government is the internationally recognised government, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA), and controls parts of the country’s western territory. The Tobruk administration, consisting of members of parliament elected in 2014, is the House of Representatives (HoR). The HoR refuses to recognize the GNA because it was installed by the international community and allegedly supports Islamists.2

A third player is the Benghazi-based Libya National Army (LNA), a force of some twenty-five thousand fighters, which is led by General Khalifa Haftar. The LNA launched an assault on Tripoli in April 2019, but his campaign to capture the city collapsed in June 2020.3 The LNA attack on Tripoli over the last year has had a devastating impact on civilians. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 200,000 people have been internally displaced and approximately 1.3 million people need humanitarian assistance.4

Though it has lost significant territory since 2016, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) remains a persistent threat in a fractured Libya. The group is the most powerful ISIS affiliate outside of Syria and Iraq as well as the most powerful extremist group operating in Libya.5

Beside the anti-Islamist Tobruk government and the Islamist Tripoli government the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) Libya Province established itself as a third power. In February 2015, IS-Islamists beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. Hundreds of individuals have been killed in politically motivated assassinations by Islamist armed groups. Further, Islamists carried out public executions and floggings and established an Islamic court and Islamic police (hisba unit). Armed forces affiliated with both the GNA and the Interim Government have carried out extrajudicial executions, and have abducted, tortured and held civilians as hostages in both state and militia prisons.

In general, access to lawyers and basic process rights is not granted by the government. Militia attacks on judges, lawyers, prosecutors, and witnesses caused the closure of courts, the breakdown of law and order, and a prevailing climate of impunity. The government has failed in protecting religious minorities or religious (Sufi) sites against violent extremist groups.

Interim Constitution

The Constitutional declaration of 2011 functions as the interim Constitution. Article 1 of the interim Constitution provides that Islam is the state religion and Islamic law the principal source of legislation. The interim Constitution also states that the State is under a duty to “guarantee for non-Muslims the freedom to practice their religious rituals.” This wording offers a limited form of protection for freedom of religion or belief. Notably, the 1951 Constitution contained a more comprehensive right of freedom or religion or belief which encompassed all citizens, rather than limiting it to ‘non-Muslims’. Article 21 of the 1951 Constitution of Libya reads:

“Freedom of belief shall be absolute. The State shall respect all religions and faiths and shall ensure to Libyans and to foreigners residing in its territory freedom of belief and the liberty to practice religious rites so long as this does not prejudice public order and morality.”6

Article 6 of the interim Constitution states that “there shall be no discrimination among Libyans on the basis of religion or sect” with regard to legal, political, and civil rights. But other laws and policies restrict these rights.  There is no law providing for an individual’s right to choose or change his or her religion or to study, discuss, or promulgate one’s religious beliefs. There is also no law prohibiting apostasy or proselytizing; however, in practice the government has been prohibiting proselytizing to Muslims.

Further, Article 291 of the Penal Code of 1953 prohibits insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad and the maximum penalty for blasphemy is the death sentence.

Education and children’s rights

Religious instruction in Islam is required in public schools and in private schools that admit citizens, but there was no in-depth instruction on other religions available in the curricula. Attendance at religious instruction is mandatory for all students. However, many schools in Libya remain closed due to the ongoing conflict.7

In April 2014, a militia group in Derna insisted that the sexes should be segregated at university and constructed a wall, limiting female students’ access to education.

Family, community and society

Sharia law governs family matters for Muslims, including inheritance, divorce, and the right to own property. Under this body of law, a non-Muslim woman who marries a Muslim man is not required to convert to Islam, although many do so; however, a non-Muslim man must convert to Islam to marry a Muslim woman. Marriages between Muslim men and women of non-Abrahamic faiths are illegal.8

The Ministry for Awqaf and Islamic Affairs administers non-Muslim family law issues, although without a parallel legal framework and draws upon neighboring countries’ family law precedents for non-Muslims. The ministry provides imams with political and social messages for Friday sermons.

Women face discrimination and are inadequately protected. Sexual harassment is prevalent, male relatives are reported to have killed several women in “honour killings” and unveiled women may be stopped and threatened at checkpoints. Women travelling without a male guardian may be challenged. The law also fails to protect women from acts of sexual violence: the penal code allows for a reduced sentence for a man who kills or injures his wife or a female relative because he suspects her of having an affair, and rapists can avoid prosecution if they marry their victim.9

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

There was a blossoming of free media, and open public debate after the overthrow of Gaddafi. In June 2012, Libya’s Supreme Court struck down a law that would have restricted any speech deemed insulting to the country’s people and institutions.

However, media freedom advocacy groups have reported an increase in restrictions on journalists since the early days of the revolution. On-going sectarian and political turbulence has seen rising violence, and murders of journalists and other public figures. While freedom of assembly has also increased since Gaddafi, the continuing street violence, and threats from more organized militias, often deter peaceful assemblies and the public expression of dissenting views.

Libyan atheists and agnostics are threatened and intimidated due to their writings on social media.


Libya’s 1953 Penal Code outlaws blasphemy and prescribes a two-year prison term.

Article 291 (Insult of the State Religion) states: “Whoever publicly abuses the Islamic religion — that being the official religion of the State under the Libyan constitution — with verbal terms not befitting for the Divine Being, the Messenger, or the Prophets, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.”10

In November 2012, the office of the Libyan National Party were raided and, two politicians, Ali Tekbali and Fathi Sager, were charged with blasphemy (amongst other offences) for an election cartoon that was deemed to be insulting to Islam. The cartoon in question showed a group of men discussing the role of women in society. The prosecution claimed that one character in the drawings resembled the Prophet Muhammad depicted in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. They were acquitted in March 2014, after a 15-month investigation.11

Other than this incident, the blasphemy law does not appear to have been used in other cases in recent years.


“I am a Libyan atheist woman in a deeply Islamic country and suffering is just a tiny word for all that what I have been through. Years ago I was an admin of a Facebook Page for Libyan female atheists and you can not imagine how many threat messages and insults I got every day in my inbox. A woman in Libya is suffering, especially if she is different! I am wearing the Hijab against my will since I was young. My phone has been taken away many times and I have been beaten. I am living as a ghost and hiding my ideas. I have accepted to be a slave rather than to lose my head.

I can not imagine what my parents would say about my atheism. Even if could avoid the criticism of my mother, I couldn’t avoid it from the others. They would call me a prostitute. People would say you are an unbeliever and you don’t deserve to live and Sharia law should be applied on you. As soon as you have a different point of view they think you do not deserve to live. Even the one that loves you the most becomes an enemy and would not hesitate to behead you.”

— Aisha


1, 7, 8

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