Amid violent protests, Catholic missionaries continue their work in Libya
By Alan Holdren
Bishop Sylvester Magro / Protests in Libya
Bishop Sylvester Magro / Protests in Libya

.- As a swell of protestors and pro-government troops battle to establish control of Libyan cities, Catholic missionaries continue to carry out their work.

The nation's leader, Moammar Ghadafi, has come down hard on protesters who took to the streets in an appeal for greater liberty. Benghazi and other cities in the eastern half of the nation are reportedly now controlled by protesters with military backing.

Tripoli remains a hotspot for the conflict and international news agencies are reporting bombings and rampant killing. Confirmations of the true status of cities are scarce, as are open lines of communication.

Estimates of the dead vary from 1,000 to tens of thousands and there is talk that the clashes could escalate into civil war. Thousands of people, especially foreign nationals residing in Libya, are evacuating en masse.

Some illegal African immigrants in Libyan jails are being forced by the pro-government troops to choose between becoming mercenaries or being killed, Father Mussie Zerai of the Italian Habeshia agency told MISNA news.

There are also reports that male immigrants are being abducted from their homes for possible mercenary service. Their possible role in mercenary service has made all immigrants targets for Ghadafi opponents.

The Italian bishops' SIR news reported that the Catholic Church is organizing for the evacuation of 500 illegal emigrants, largely Eritreans.

Catholic priests and religious are weathering the storm. Many religious sisters work in hospitals and are working overtime with casualties from the conflicts.

“We are well and are continuing our work, despite the situation being unclear and not knowing who actually controls the city,” Sr. Elisabeth of the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception told MISNA from Benghazi.

“The police and army have disappeared, everyone is thinking of their own safety, guarding their homes, businesses and neighborhoods.”

Sr. Elisabeth said she was unsure of how many people have been injured or killed. “But we know there are many,” she said.

She added that the Libyan people are “weary.”

In a brief telephone conversation with CNA on Feb. 24, Bishop Sylvester Magro, Apostolic Vicar of Benghazi, said that the principal concern of the Catholic Church “is to be close to the sick and suffering, so our contribution to the events is invaluable because of our closeness to the people.”

He said that the Catholic population shares the fate of “everybody else,” at this point.

Bishop Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, Apostolic Vicar of Tripoli, told Fides on Feb. 23 that the Catholic community in Libya is made up entirely of “foreigners.”

While the Europeans have been mostly evacuated, the Filipinos - who have a particular presence as hospital nurses - have remained, but the African immigrants “are the ones who need the most assistance.”

Bishop Martinelli is “convinced that there are many people who want peace above all.”

Of the Church in Tripoli, he said they have not had any trouble. “We even had some signs of solidarity on the part of the Libyans, in the form of assistance to both the sisters and to Christians, such as the Filipino nurses who are serving at local hospitals.”

He is closely monitoring the situation of religious communities, he said. For those working around the clock to treat victims, they have instructions that they may leave the country for a period of rest if they feel mentally and physically infirm.

Bishop Martinelli also said that one group of religious sisters who work with immigrants in Tripoli may soon be leaving the city anyway because “in this situation it is precarious to work.”

Bishops Martinelli and Magro oversee the two apostolic vicariates that coordinate Church activities from the western capital of Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi.

To serve the large and varied immigrant communities, Masses are held at least once a week for at least 10 different groups divided up by nationality or language.

Masses for Koreans, Indians, Eritreans and Filipinos are interspersed among those given in English, Italian, French, Polish and Arabic.

Parish activities are still largely overseen by Franciscan priests. In a number of cities and towns, but in particular in Tripoli and Benghazi, religious communities are also present.

For now, the conflict continues and projections for casualties look grim.

The vice president of the European Parliament, Gianni Pitella, told Vatican Radio that they have received confirmation of around 10,000 dead. He warned that the figure would be increasing by the hour.

He said that “the brutal madness of the regime puts almost any means, even the most atrocious, into play ... to stop the citizens that are in the squares, in the streets and are seeing their dream of freedom being realized.”

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