BEIRUT (CNS) — Christians in Libya are afraid that a takeover of the country by Islamic fundamentalists, should leader Moammar Gadhafi fall, would threaten their safety, said a Franciscan priest who has served in the North African nation for seven years.
“Under Gadhafi, we’ve been protected,” the priest told Catholic News Service from Rome Feb. 24, eight days after leaving the country on a pre-planned trip. He asked not to be identified so as not to jeopardize his return to Libya.
The priest said he left Libya the day before a revolt against Gadhafi started in the eastern city of Benghazi. Because plans for the protest had been announced days beforehand, tensions rose between Gadhafi supporters and opposition leaders, he said.
“I didn’t expect so much to happen,” he said, referring to the rapid escalation of violence that left at least 300 dead and more than 3,000 injured.
The uprising is the most recent and most violent in a tide of protests against autocratic leaders in the region. Gadhafi rose to power following a coup in 1969.
One of 13 Franciscans serving the apostolic vicariates of Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and Benghazi, the priest said it was difficult being away from the parishioners he serves during a time of distress.
“At this time I feel I should be with the people. I could be a support to them. Even though we wouldn’t have access to a lot of communication, we could be in touch with one another somehow,” he said.
Communication with Libya was nearly impossible as the opposition gained new supporters in western areas Feb. 24. Internet and mobile phones were blocked; telephone lines operated sporadically.
The Franciscans are assigned to St. Francis Church in Tripoli and Immaculate Conception Church in Benghazi.
There are no native Christians in those areas, but about 50,000 to 60,000 Christian migrant workers, mostly from Africa, work in Libya.
After attempts over several days, the priest was able to reach Bishop Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, apostolic vicar of Tripoli. The bishop reported that the priests, nuns and most foreigners were “safe and sound,” but remain frightened, the priest said. Obtaining food and medical supplies was difficult because shops were closed, he said.
While most foreigners were being evacuated, leaving the country poses a dilemma for migrant workers. Many fled an unstable environment in their homeland and often do not have the necessary identity papers. The priest said the Franciscans were working to help the migrants through their country’s embassy and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
In addition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Feb. 23 that Israel would allow 300 Palestinians living in Libya whose lives are endangered into areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
Describing religious practice at the Franciscan missions in Libya, the priest said, “The Libyan government has given complete freedom to the Christians to practice our Christianity.”
The government recognizes five dominations of Christianity: Roman Catholic; Coptic; Greek Orthodox, Anglican and the Union Church, a Protestant church in Africa, he said.
Aside from the two parish churches, Mass can be celebrated in hospitals and at private companies where Catholic work, the priest said. Priests and nuns also are allowed to visit inmates in prison to provide spiritual counseling and emotional support, he said.
Because Friday is a non-working day in honor of Muslim prayers, the churches celebrate five Masses for Africans, Indians, Filipinos, Eritreans and Koreans, the major migrant communities in Libya.
On Sunday, a national workday, the priests bring the Mass to the people at sites ranging from hospitals to oil rigs. Working on a rotating schedule, the priests travel from 15 miles to 745 miles to celebrate Sunday Mass.
While the police and government security know the priests minister only to Christians, the priest said, “We are always observed wherever we go, whatever we do,” seemingly as a precaution that they are not converting Muslims.