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from issue no. 03 - 2004

LIBYA. Interview with the Vicar Apostolic of Tripoli

Mediterranean Realism

With the Lockerbie case closed and the embargo over, a new season of dialogue has opened. “ Ghadaffi has noticed that religious fanaticism is leading us to disaster and has once again become realistic”. So says Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli

by Giovanni Cubeddu

REHABILITATED. The Libyan leader Ghadaffi at a meeting of the African Union

REHABILITATED. The Libyan leader Ghadaffi at a meeting of the African Union

«The compensation agreed for the terrorist attacks of Lockerbie, of the UTA flight, for those in Germany – and it would seem there is also discussion on reimbursing the Jews thrown out at the beginning of the revolution - demonstrates that the desire for dialogue is gaining strength in Libya. The end of the embargo against the country had a positive effect, then discussion on weapons of mass destruction got under way, and the regime said yes to international inspection. Finally, even President Bush has acknowledged the merits of the behavior of Ghaddafi’s actions».
Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, Vicar Apostolic of Tripoli, was born sixty years ago of Italian parents, and has never failed to show his affection for Libya. The Franciscan monk has been head of the Vicariate since 3 May 1985 and has lived all the shifting phases of the regime’s attitude towards the Catholic Church (he also ended up in jail in 1986, on the day after the American bombing of Tripoli and of the Libyan missiles on Lampedusa). Today the Church in Libya hopes, along with every citizen, for the complete international rehabilitation toward which the Country seems decisively heading. Pope Wojtyla always spoke out against the embargo and already in 1997 the agreement on full diplomatic relations between Holy See and Libya marked a point in favor of dialogue with the West. Ghadaffi’s Sunni Islam has nothing to do with religious fundamentalism. And at that point let’s begin our interview with the Bishop of Tripoli.

GIOVANNI INNOCENZO MARTINELLI: Ghadaffi has always had a wish for dialogue with the religions, he demonstrated that already with the big inter-religious congress held in Tripoli in 1976, which was meant to change the impression that his regime was against other religions (even if, in the past, the buildings for Christian worship had been closed down because judged to have been part of the connivance with colonialist fascism...). As Catholic bishop of Tripoli, and having been born in Libya, I have never seen the regime take a stand against the religions but always to invite an exchange of views. Furthermore, Ghadaffi has recently taken another step forward, precisely to encourage a positive view of Libyan Islam, as opposed and “against” so-called terrorist and fundamentalist Islam. The Dawa al-Islamiya, which is the official Libyan institution for inter-religious dialogue, has organized and taken part in various important meetings that have drawn international attention to Libya. And I believe it is worth pointing to this positive encounter between Christian ecumenicalism and inter-religious dialogue that is going on in Libya.
What are you referring to?
MARTINELLI: First of all the visit of his Holiness Bartholomew I, Ecumenic Patriarch of Constantinople. His coming was something of a surprise, and has given dialogue in the Christian world in Libya a more complete and truer complexion. In Libya there are, apart from the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Coptic Church, the Anglican communion and the Union Church. The effective and fruitful presence of Bartholomew I has helped us in our ecumenic work. Not just that. The patriarch gave a lecture to the Islamic Faculty of Tripoli in front of more than four hundred guests and was then received by the ambassador of Turkey. The ambassador’s speech more or less summed up our feelings in those days. He stressed the importance of Bartholomew I in the dialogue between Islam and Orthodoxy. The Orthodox patriarch comes, in fact, from a Muslim but not theocratic country, and was now come to Libya to build a bridge to the Orthodox Christianity of these regions of the Arabic Mediterranean. So, this visit of Bartholomew I seemed to me a very fine imagining of the Spirit, who is helping and leading us toward the universality of the Christian message.
THE CHURCH IN LIBYA.  Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, Vicar Apostolic of Tripoli

THE CHURCH IN LIBYA. Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, Vicar Apostolic of Tripoli

The Coptic Patriarch Shenouda also came to Libya…
MARTINELLI: …and received a human rights prize, the Ghadaffi Prize, for having been the Christian voice that, within a world of Islamic culture, had managed to bring a message of peace to the Middle Eastern area. The Coptic Bishop of the Pentapolis Mar Pakomios often comes to Libya. Whereas Shenouda III came to Tripoli for the first time at the beginning of the revolution, and was now coming back to receive the prize, almost to crown this continual dialogue with the Libyan Coptic community. Which is a privileged community, because it is linked directly to the evangelist Mark. The Jewish Mark was from a zone of Cirene that even the Libyan Bedouins calls Wadi Marcos, and in Coptic tradition Mark left Libya to go and evangelize Egypt.
To finish on the subject of ecumenicalism, I recall that, apart from the patriarchs, Anglican authorities have also recently visited Libya.
And the Dawa al-Islamiya?
MARTINELLI: When possible it was always present at our ecumenic meetings, appreciating their value and paying it homage. But from 18 to 22 September it also hosted an international Islamo-Christian meeting on the theme of the faiths’ knowledge of one another, open to the various Christian denominations. For four days there was positive conviviality in Tripoli among Christian and Moslem spokesmen. I was struck in the context by a statement by the Mufti from Moscow: «We must get used to knowing the Christians not for what the Koran tells us but for what the Christians themselves tell us, through their Gospel». It was precisely the appeal to rid ourselves of the fixed notions we use to “recognize” each other. And again, the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue will hold a joint gathering with Dawa al-Islamiya in March in Rome on the figure of the imam and the priest, to reiterate the importance of their being open to dialogue.
Do you think Tripoli’s foreign policy is changing radically?
MARTINELLI: If the grievous conflict between Israel and the Palestinians isn’t resolved, there’ll always be an open wound. The Middle Eastern world has undergone and is undergoing so much destruction and so many violations of human rights. However, I believe that if reconciliation in the Arabic world is really being sought for, then one must re-analyze the presuppositions of Libya’s “anti” Israel and “anti” America policies.
Meanwhile Ghadaffi has been looking at Africa for some time.
MARTINELLI: Libya is doing everything it can to get the rights of Africans taken into consideration. Meanwhile in Libya there are a great many immigrants from the sub-Saharan area, and that is something that worries both the government and the West, because the coast of Libya is the bridge toward Europe, and the smuggling of people can sometimes blend into terrorism... But under other aspects Libyan hospitality gives this poor people the possibility of finding work, escaping from some local war and from poverty. It’s known that Ghadaffi aspires to become one of the central leaders of the African Union and wants to help the process of political development on the continent, given that Libya has been present for some time as “influence” in various sub-Saharan states… However, if the African Union needs time, Ghadaffi means to provide it.
From the left, the Libyan leader Ghadaffi with the two-party delegation of the American Congress in Tripoli 26 January 2004

From the left, the Libyan leader Ghadaffi with the two-party delegation of the American Congress in Tripoli 26 January 2004

As you see it, will the new policies of the regime achieve the results they seek?
MARTINELLI: Well, I’ve always been positive in judging Libya and in moments of difficulty I’ve always tried to look on the good side, because it seemed to me that all the negative reactions of the government of Tripoli arose also out of misunderstandings, out of seeing themselves as victims of an ideological bias against them. In effect many European and American politicians have missed more than one chance to understand the underlying motives of the regime and the positive nature of some of Ghaddafi’s stances. By using his freedom of judgment, the Vicar Apostolic of Tripoli has never been manipulated and has felt the desire for justice that has animated even the leader’s rowdiest positions. Yes, sometimes there has been rabble-rousing, but Ghadaffi has never lacked the wish to speak frankly. Now that he has noticed that religious fanaticism is leading us to disaster, he has once again become realist. He has begun no longer to accept these forms of extremism and terrorism, declaring himself ready instead to look for the least bloody way of getting rid of these forces, not taking their part. The decision seems very valid to me.
How do you judge the way the Church in Libya had to live with the regime from the start?
MARTINELLI: The Catholic Church in Libya acts according to the inspiration of the universal Church. The Holy Father has truly been a great example to us both as regards dialogue with Islam and for the clear stance against violence and against war. In the international communion the force of dialogue also lies in giving importance to small nations, who sometimes have a genuine point. For us, the Church of Libya, listening to the voice of the government of Tripoli was a chance to understand all the rest, that is first the sensibility of the Arab Moslem world, and then the sub-Saharan Africa one. The Church of Libya, in always accepting dialogue with the regime, has tried to live this deep communion with the universal Church.

Thus the interview. And there’s an anecdote not to be forgotten. Catholic mass is celebrated in Tripoli in the small white church named after the Saint of Assisi, and the bishop, they say, always takes his friends to admire a painting: Saint Francis moving ahead of the ranks of crusaders to announce peace to the sultan of Egypt.

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