Although signals from the Vatican have been largely muted regarding the U.S.-led coalition intervention in Libya, the top Church official in the north African Arab country makes no secret of where he stands: 

“Stop the bombing in Libya! Stop this crusade of Christian Western countries against the Muslims!” Bishop Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, who has been apostolic vicar in the capital Tripoli since 1985, told Our Sunday Visitor in late March. 

“Negotiate a solution through diplomatic means, as Pope Benedict XVI has advocated!” he said. 

Pope Benedict has called for an end to the violence. But other Church officials, including the pope’s own envoy to an international summit on Libya, have said the situation in the North African country is forcing the international community to examine its obligation to intervene when the lives of civilians are being threatened. 

Bishop Martinelli, 69, who was born in Libya of Italian parents, has firmly opposed international military intervention from the outset, and told OSV he was convinced that “the social problems” that had emerged in Libya could be resolved through dialogue. 

Speaking by phone from his residence in Tripoli, where 25 percent of the country’s 7 million people live, he described the current problems in Libya as “a crisis of generations.” Earlier, speaking to La Stampa, an Italian daily, he compared the wave of protests hitting Libya to the 1968 student protests in the West.

African solution

Sure, the international community could help Libyans find a “solution,” he said, but “this cannot be with Europe,” because “the Libyans see this as a new crusade.”

“Why does Europe interfere in this matter?” he asked pointedly, adding that the African Union and the Arab League “would have been the normal way” at the international level to help resolve these problems. 

He acknowledged that the U.N. Security Council, on March 17, had authorized a “humanitarian intervention” to protect civilian and peaceful protesters from being killed by Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces, But he said the “U.N. should be trying to solve the problem with the normal and natural way of the African Union and Arab League, which have moral authority in Libya.”

Libyan against Libyan 

Asked how he would describe the rebels, who first peacefully demanded greater democracy but subsequently took up arms to defend themselves, Bishop Martinelli said he could not answer everything “because I am in Tripoli, and I do not know the other side well.” 

“But what is sure,” he added, “is that there is the blood of Libyans on one side and on the other side; Libyan blood. It is brother against brother, Libyan against Libyan, and the bomb is against the Libyans.” 

“As a shepherd I feel this is a scandal, the scandal of the Christian Western countries against the Muslims. This is very bad! I feel this really is a humiliation, the humiliation of this people, and it is not the way to solve this problem,” the bishop said. 

Worse, many Libyans on the streets of Tripoli view the intervention as the Christian-West bombing Muslims, he said; “They feel the crusade; they feel this is the Christians against the Muslims.” 

The day after he talked with OSV, Bishop Martinelli denounced the alleged killing of 40 civilians in Tripoli by allied bombs, and suggested that the haste with which France, Italy and other countries rushed to humanitarian military intervention had more to do with securing access to Libya’s oil than protecting civilians. Libya has the 10th-largest proven oil reserves of any country in the world.

Christian exodus 

As in Iraq, so too in Libya the conflict has led to an exodus of Christians. Before it began, he said, the Catholic community in Libya was “very small, maybe 100,000 faithful” (though Vatican numbers are higher) composed of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa or Asia, mainly Filipinos and Indians. Now he thinks “it is no more than 2,000-3,000 people.” 

“We have no Libyan Christian Arabs in our community, but we have some Christian Arabs from Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon who are working in Libya,” he added. 

Most migrant workers fled when the conflict erupted, seeking refuge in Tunisia, Egypt, Malta, Italy or elsewhere in Europe, he said, but more than 1,000 Filipino nurses, “showing great responsibility,” continued to work in hospitals in Tripoli, while other Asians and Africans stayed to work in social fields. 

“We still have an Afro-Asiatic community in Tripoli and we celebrate Mass on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It is a beautiful community, especially at this time, with a special responsibility to find in the communion of the Church the strength to be and to serve these people according to their different needs. We have Filipinos in the hospitals and schools [where they teach English] and Africans in other fields of social life,” he said. 

In Tripoli, he said, there are five communities of nuns (Indians, French and Italians), including two communities of the Missionaries of Charity, and six priests: three Filipinos, one Maltese and one Egyptian. Another priest works in Sabha — in the desert, around 435 miles from Tripoli — and cares for African migrants from sub-Sahara. 

In Benghazi, the Catholic community’s situation “is much the same” as in Tripoli, he said; it is served by six priests, and communities of religious women (Italian, Indian and African), who work as nurses in hospitals there and in nearby towns including Tobruk and Al Bayda. 

The Catholic community “really has no particular problem with the Libyans,” he said. “They respect us. They respect us as a community, as religious, as priests, as a Church.” 

Under Gadhafi’s rule, the Church has not had any problem providing religious service to its flock. “We go around Libya without any difficulties,” he said.

“We are really happy for the service our Christians provide in different places, but we are not happy that our brothers abroad are not able to find the way of dialogue to help us,” he said. 

“They feel the bomb is a solution, but they will never find a solution with the bomb,” he stated. “That’s why we have to find another way, the diplomatic way.” 

Gerard O’Connell writes from Rome.

Catholics in Libya (sidebar)

Although it is likely Christianity was preached in the area in early times, the Islamization of Libya was complete by the 11th century, and Islam remains the state religion. Virtually all Catholics there now are foreign workers. After implementation of a U.N. embargo against the country in 1992, the government removed most limitations on entry of Catholic religious orders, especially health care workers. Libya established diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1997. 

Catholics number about 155,000, or 1.8 percent of the total population. They are served by six parishes and a dozen priests.