Tripoli: In the capital of war-torn Libya, a dwindling Christian community of foreign workers leave their fears and anxieties at the church door as they gather for Christmas carols and laughter.
Lisa, who has worked at a private clinic in Tripoli for 15 years, held a candle in one hand and adjusted her Santa Claus hat with the other.
Around her, excited children ran around before being directed to Bible class, as rooms in the church filled with the sounds of hymns and laughter.
Since the 2011 fall of dictator Moamer Kadhafi, the small community’s fears for its safety have increased, especially after jihadists claimed to have killed dozens of Christians in the country this year.
But every Friday — a day off in Libya — they still flock to Saint Francis, one of the capital’s only churches still open, to pray and support each other.
In a central courtyard, men and women from the Philippines, India and several African nations exchange news as they sell products from their home countries.
Jollof rice and peanut soup are on offer beside colourful textiles, home remedies and specialised hair products.
– Dwindling numbers –
Most Westerners fled Libya after August 2014, when an Islamist-backed militia alliance overran Tripoli, prompting the internationally recognised government to flee to the country’s far east.
But with little hope of finding work back home, workers from Asia, Africa and other parts of the Arab world opted to stay put.
More than 100,000 Christians lived in Libya before the 2011 revolution that toppled Kadhafi, said Father Magdi, an Egyptian priest who arrived in Libya before the uprising.
“Today, we’re only about 5,000 — and less than 1,000 in Tripoli,” he said.
The Islamic State jihadist group has exploited the chaos in Libya since the uprising to expand its influence in the country.
Earlier this year, it claimed to have executed 21 Coptic Christians — all but one of them from Egypt — and 28 Christians originally from Ethiopia.
The international community is pressing Libya’s two rival administrations to form a unity government and combine their forces against Islamic State jihadists.
As rival politicians edge closer to a deal, Christian expats view church as a source of relief from wider political tensions.
– ‘Brothers and sisters’ –
“It’s important for me to go to church each Friday,” said Benjamin, a Ghanian security guard who stayed in Libya after the 2011 uprising.
“For a few hours every week, it feels good to be with African brothers and sisters. I forget I’m in Libya… I feel I’m at home.”
Africans make up the largest and most vulnerable members of Tripoli’s Christian community, as they are often undocumented migrants who came to Libya looking for work — or the chance to cross the sea to Europe.
The country has long been a stepping stone for Africans in search of a better life in Europe and people smugglers have stepped up their lucrative business in the turmoil following Kadhafi’s death.
Joyce, a Nigerian woman who works as a cleaner, said she often fears for her safety when returning home.
“I don’t like to walk alone in the street late at night or take a black-and-white taxi,” she said. “If anything happens, I can’t call the police. They don’t exist anymore.”
Fellow worshippers Anthony and Rebecca are among the rare African expats to be staying in Libya legally, and the couple’s three sons were born in the country.
“What happens to the Libyans happens to us too. When they feel insecure, we do too,” said Anthony, a security guard. “Everything is expensive for everybody and no one knows what will happen tomorrow.”
But Rebecca, who works as a cleaner, remains optimistic: “We pray for Libya every week at church. We pray that this country finds peace.”