The Catholic Church in Libya is being “purified once again” as its members are forced to evacuate the country amid violent protests, said a Tripoli priest.
Just 15 priests and an estimated 60 religious sisters, led by two bishops, serve the rapidly decreasing number of Catholics in the nation, which has been torn by strife in recent weeks.
Father Daniel Farrugia, the Maltese vicar general in Tripoli, said that before the protests there were about 80,000 Catholics in Libya, accounting for a little over half of the total number of Christians.
The Catholic population is made up entirely of foreigners or migrants and "most of them are illegal" immigrants, he said in an e-mail to CNA on Feb. 28.
In addition to serving as vicar general, Fr. Farrugia is the parish priest of the African and non-Filipino English-speaking community at St. Francis Catholic Church in Tripoli. He also works with the French, Maltese and Italian ex-patriot communities.
Church members come from many parts of the world, including Korea, India and Poland. The majority, however, come from sub-Saharan Africa and from the Philippines.
Masses are offered in about a dozen languages, among them Korean, Maltese, the Eritrean language Tigrina and Tagalog for Filipinos. A group of Vietnamese Catholics arrived at Christmas, he said.
Islam is Libya’s majority religion. But Fr. Farrugia said Catholics are “free” to worship and celebrate Mass in the country’s two churches, located in the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi.
Most other Church properties were seized by the government following the revolution led by Moammar Gadhafi in 1969. The Cathedral of Tripoli was made into a mosque in 1970, while the cathedral in Benghazi was closed and is now being restructured for a possible conversion into a museum.
One old Catholic building that had been abandoned for years has been reopened for use by the country’s tiny Anglican community.
Fr. Farrugia said there are strict limits on religious practice outside of the church buildings. Catholics, for example, are prohibited from praying the Rosary in public or giving out Bibles.
“We cannot have property or build churches as foreigners,” he added.
Charitable activities are based out of a small center on the Church premises. Anything off-site is prohibited.
Sisters from the 16 religious communities active in the nation are allowed to work in hospitals.
The apostolic vicar of Tripoli, Bishop Giovanni Martinelli, who gives regular reports through the Italian media, says many of the sisters are still working but some have been sent to their home countries because work has become “precarious.”
Hospitals are busier than ever with the injuries of protests, but the sisters have pledged to stay as long as they can.
A Feb. 26 note from the Apostolic Nunciature of Malta and Libya to the news agency Fides emphasized the appreciation of Libyans for the work of the Church in the nation. Libyans have made “concrete gestures of solidarity and protection” towards them in recent days, they said.
St. Francis Catholic Church in Tripoli is quieter than usual these days. Many of its members have fled, been evacuated or are staying at home. Some have taken refuge in the church itself.
Fr. Ferrugia said they are not involved in the protests as they are all from foreign nations. For the last two days, he said, “there is a certain normality in the city.”
People have lined up at banks to receive the 500 dinars (just over $400) the government is paying out to all individuals. Shops are re-opening, normal traffic is returning.
He noted a lack of armed police or military vehicles in the streets. “In the evenings there is a strange silence all around and no sign of protest,” the priest said in the early afternoon of Feb. 28.
The Church is spending this time “in prayer and in solidarity with those who are left here and the locals who are living very difficult and sad moments,” he said.
Much has changed in the Church since Feb. 16, when the uprising began. No one showed up for Mass on Friday, Feb. 25, for example. “Usually it is a real joy on Friday mornings with the songs and fervent prayer of our people,” said Fr. Farrugia.
The Church is concerned about the situation for the immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa that remain in the country. “We are mainly worried for hundreds of Eritreans who are stranded here and no one cares for their evacuation,” he said.
Bishop Martinelli made an appeal for the nearly 2,000 Eritreans who have sought help from the Church in recent days. He told Fides on Feb. 28, “It pains our hearts because we cannot do anything for them.”
He said that there is no one thinking of them. “We try to help them in any way we can, contributing to the rent of their houses,” said the bishop. What they need, however, is a way out and a place to go, he urged.
Of the hundreds of immigrants the Vicariate of Tripoli has registered for evacuation, so far just 54 individuals will be evacuated to Italy.
They are also doing what they can to provide financial help to all Catholics and locals, but they are rapidly running out of basic necessities. International donations are being collected through Caritas Libya, particularly to keep immigrant assistance going.
Caritas Internationalis estimated that 1.5 million sub-Saharan immigrants were living in Libya before the conflict. Tens of thousands have reportedly fled, but many remain in hiding across Libya as the unrest continues.
Fr. Ferrugia suggested that the protests are founded on just principles.
The nation's youth, he said, are seeking a decent salary and means to start families. “They rightly seem to thirst for more freedom and justice.”
Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi confirmed the right of young people “who desire human growth for a greater freedom” to ask for it, in his weekly editorial on Feb. 25. He condemned the violence, but spoke of the hope for a new springtime from the Arab world.
“To us,” he said, “it seems that besides due respect there needs to be willingness and initiative for concrete assistance in the situations of difficulty that each profound transformation brings with it, and also friendship and dialogue among the peoples and cultures, today more than in the past.”
At the Feb. 27 Angelus prayer, Pope Benedict XVI asked Christians to pray “that justice and dialogue might prevail over violence and profit.”
The Church, concluded Fr. Farrugia, sees with the mass exodus of immigrants a repeat in her historical fortunes in Libya that has seen the Catholic presence erased and rebuilt several times over the millennia.
He repeated words he heard from Bishop Martinelli in recent days. “Our Church is being purified once again.”