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from issue no. 03 - 2011

Africa for the Africans

The Apostolic Vicar of Tripoli recounts the days of warfare

by Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli

Monsignor Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, Apostolic Vicar of Tripoli, with some Eritrean refugees in the rectory of the church of St Francis, in Tripoli, 28 February 2011 [© Ansa]

Monsignor Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, Apostolic Vicar of Tripoli, with some Eritrean refugees in the rectory of the church of St Francis, in Tripoli, 28 February 2011 [© Ansa]


As soon as he realized what was about to happen, a fidei donum priest from Trent managed to catch the last flight for Tripoli and returned here, to be close to those who would have need of him. A Muslim family from Beida did, in their own way, even better. They traveled hundreds of miles to the border with Egypt to wait for Sister Lucia, a friend who was returning to work in the hospital. Not having the possibility of a direct flight to Benghazi, Sister Lucia had to pass through Egypt, where she was hosted by the relatives of those same Libyan friends who then met her at the border. She too is now here, now that a lot of pain is being handed out, and people can’t really understand why.

In October, for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the episcopal nominationt of the Apostolic Vicar of Tripoli [the same Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli], there was a spontaneous celebration, peaceful and joined in by Christians and Muslims, with great cordiality of all towards all. No one imagined that war would come.
After the first moments of the rebellion against the regime, life in Tripoli continued almost as usual, while the fighting took place elsewhere. There was more silence than usual, an apparent tranquility and sought after to drive off the fear and sadness. Some people, understandably, fled, hoping to return soon. The presence of the checkpoints reminded us that there were violent clashes in the country. Then came the coalition bombings, which have caused a lot of civilian casualties: I’ve heard numerous and credible witnesses and have repeated it publicly. How can you expect to hit a military target near people’s homes without thinking of the consequences? Because of the “humanitarian” bombs buildings collapsed carrying away entire families; some hospitals have also reported damages.
Now we have the police van in front of the entrance door of our Franciscan house, we have become the subject of greater protection from the government, and it’s more than obvious given the situation.
In general, however, the Catholic Church has not been touched, in fact, it has been protected.
The life of our community has been diminished... but it continues.  In this “normality”, with the few Catholics remaining we can still celebrate Mass on the mornings of Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Most of the Christian community are foreigners. It’s a known fact that our Catholic identity is Afro-Asiatic, represented mostly by Filipino workers employed in the hospitals, and by French and English speaking African immigrants. The Westerners, working in the foreign companies winners of the contracts, left when the shutters went down, at the first sound of fighting.
Islam has nothing to do with this war and we have never had problems with our Muslim friends. On the contrary. Libyan Islam has never been a preoccupation for us.
With the war going on, at the end of March, we also maintained our regular meetings with the Dawa al Islamiya, known as the World Islamic Call Society, the famous government body for religious dialogue. I first of all had a personal interview with the Secretary-General Mohamed Ahmed Sheriff, and a few days later a meeting was held with the group of Christian and Catholic religious in Tripoli. In so far as I was able, I promoted this initiative. These encounters, experienced with a fraternal spirit, are useful and now also serve to foster mediation, wherever that is possible, in this war. The Dawa in fact, in accord with the Holy See, is asking that a solution to the war be immediately sought.
As I speak there is still hope for a political and diplomatic solution. That is, that there may be a genuine dialogue between the factions that can realistically offer an honorable outcome for all. The African Union and the Arab League need to be involved.
These are days when I think I see some signs of reconciliation, both within the country and outside. There are attempts underway.
Sub-Saharan African migrant workers in the church of St Francis, in Tripoli [© Corbis]

Sub-Saharan African migrant workers in the church of St Francis, in Tripoli [© Corbis]

The African Union (AU) has not been seriously called on, not to the extent that it can effectively carry out negotiations. Perhaps someone has a superiority complex. The Africans, for their part, do not expose themselves, but we know that there are those within the AU who have requested that action be taken for Libya.
For decades we have been saying “Africa for the Africans”. Why shouldn’t this apply now?
On the other hand, there are coalition countries that want to give weapons to the rebels. Weapons do not bring peace, whoever is using them. What would be the purpose, for the Libyans to continue killing each other? Here the people are united by nature – I have not met anyone who has told me that he wants the country to be divided in two – and dispensing weapons is against the people. It’s almost as if there is a desire to eliminate them. We must do everything to encourage talks between the parties, in a serene atmosphere, with the appropriate persons; we must reach agreement through compromise.
I want to thank all the bishops who have called me, and above all to thank Pope Benedict, who comforted us greatly and has taken a simple and clear position.
From Saint Peter’s Square he requested that “a horizon of peace and concord arise as soon as possible over Libya and the entire North African region”. No to weapons; yes immediately to talks and peace. We have translated his comments into English and Arabic and circulated them as widely as possible. We have read the text in all our masses and I went in person to deliver it to a few Libyan friends.
Every day looking at the witness of the Christians here sustains me, people like the Filipino nurses and the women-religious who work in the hospitals in Tripolitania, and the countless others in Cyrenaica, in the cities in the hands of the insurgents. All of them take care of all the victims, on both sides of the barricade.
(Text assembled by Giovanni Cubeddu)

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