A young Libyan woman wearing a traditional garb participates in a Feb. 16 ceremony to mark the anniversary of the Feb. 17 beginning of the Libyan revolution. The head of Benghazi's diminished Catholic community spoke of a need to rebuild his congregation and of the uncertainties ahead. CNS photo/Esam Al-Fetori, Reuters

Benghazi bishop recalls Libyan revolution, looks ahead to rebuilding

By  Michael Gunn, Catholic News Service
  • February 23, 2012

BENGHAZI, Libya - As Benghazi residents marked the anniversary of Libya's revolution, the head of the city's diminished Catholic community spoke of a need to rebuild his congregation and of the uncertainties ahead.

"Thank God everything passed peacefully" on the anniversary, Bishop Sylvester Magro said after the Feb. 19 Mass attended by just a few dozen, mainly Filipino, worshippers.

"After such a prolonged war you are always in doubt of what might happen next," the bishop said.

Beyond the gates of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, the Mediterranean-front city's boulevards were crammed with thousands of revelers, guarded by heavily armed militia and a fledgling black-clad police force.

Libya is an almost entirely Muslim country, with Christianity restricted to enclaves of foreign workers, most of them only temporary residents. Although exact figures were unknown, the country was thought to play host to 40,000 Catholics until many were evacuated during last year's civil war.

Benghazi was home to a 2,000-strong Catholic community, almost evenly split between Filipinos and Africans from Ghana, Nigeria and elsewhere.

Now just 300 practicing Catholics remain in the city, Bishop Magro told Catholic News Service.

Bishop Magro, 71, was born in Malta but has lived in Libya for 24 years, serving in the capital, Tripoli, until his appointment as bishop of Benghazi in 1997.

He serves with five priests and 24 nuns who volunteer in hospitals in Benghazi and the other eastern cities of al-Marj, al-Bayda, Derna and Tobruk.

As the protests that began in eastern Libya last February spiraled into an armed insurrection and Benghazi was seized by pro-democracy forces, the city's Catholic community faced a stark choice.

"We made it a point, all of us -- myself as bishop, but also the priests and the nuns. We all opted to remain with the people and the sick and those who needed their help," said Bishop Magro.

Just weeks later, a counteroffensive by government forces brought tanks and heavy weapons to the edge of the city.

"In March the war was close to the city gates -- we were all terrified and afraid," the bishop said. "There was no chance of leaving anymore, there were no planes or ships."

A NATO-led bombing campaign helped turn the tide, with Benghazi settling into a fragile peace as fighting moved west toward Tripoli.

Despite the official end to the war in late October and the return of relative security in eastern Libya, Bishop Magro said Catholic migrants "are slowly returning, not immediately, because it depends on their governments, also."

"We hope others will come to increase the presence of the church," he said.

The prospect of a new, more Islamic government for Libya has also raised some concerns over future restrictions for the country's Christian communities. In addition to Catholics, Libya is also home to Anglican, Greek Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox churches.

In late October, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, leader of the country's transitional government, pledged that Libya would use Shariah as its source of legislation and cancel any laws contradicting Islamic law. And the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood has begun to emerge as a contender in June's elections.

"How things evolve or develop is beyond everyone's control," Bishop Magro said. "We choose to hope and pray for universal peace and everybody will be happy in his own domain."

Rebuilding Libya "is a long process, and much depends on the decisions taken," he said. "We hope and pray it will be peaceful, and we continue to practice our faith. The rest is not in our hands. It is in God's hands alone."

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