Inside Saint Francis ChurchTripoli, Libya. It is Friday in Tripoli. Yet, in the church of Saint Francis, in the central Dahra neighborhood, which has emptied for the day of prayer and rest for Muslims, Pentecost is celebrated two days in advance. The faithful, mostly Africans and Filipinos, would not be able to come on Sunday which is a work day, says His Excellency Monsignor George Bugeja, Maltese Franciscan from Gozo. For less than one year, he has served as Coadjutor Vicar Apostolic: essentially a Bishop acting in a border region for the Catholic Church. The country is split by clashes between militias and armed forces that support two different rival governments, one in Tripoli and the other in Tobruk. The Islamic State has taken advantage of the power vacuum, and the institutional void swells the numbers of migrants that depart from Libya’s shores for Europe. Many of these migrants pass through His Excellency Bugeja’s parish. Friday morning is also the day for confirmations. Being inside the Fascist-era church is like being in a church in the Southern United States rather than a small North African city in the throes of war. Welcoming the devotees are black Africans wearing a sash that says “usher.” The choir sings gospel. Devotees are African workers coming from various countries. In the internal courtyard Nigerian women have set up stands to sell colored fabrics, spices, dried fish. In a small room, another group celebrates an engagement to the sounds of an accordion. Libya is not a closed chapter for the Church, we live in a difficult time alongside the country, Bishop George Bugeja explains to Oasis in “Pentecost Friday.”
Who are the Christians in Libya?
As Catholics there are Filipinos and Africans from a number of countries: Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone…others coming from French-speaking countries. This morning’s mass was in English and the African Christians came. The Filipinos, who are mostly nurses working in the private clinics and hospitals, come at 9:00. The mass is celebrated on Friday. It is a compromise in order to allow working people to participate. Usually there are 400 people. The entire community reaches 3,000 individuals, but many are leaving with repatriation programs, as is the case with the Filipinos. There are no Catholic Libyans.
What is your relationship with the local religious and political institutions?
In the state that the country is in, I have not yet had the opportunity to be in contact with these institutions. They should be taking the initiative.
Besides your Saint Francis Church, are there others in Tripoli?
The Mosque on Algeria Square [a central square in the Libyan capital] was the cathedral until Muammar Gaddafi’s arrival. The Santa Maria degli Angeli church, built by the Italians in the old city, is run by the Anglicans. Two years before the fall of Gaddafi, the Libyan government proposed it to us. It is a beautiful church, with Franciscan symbols. Bishop Giovanni Martinelli then gave it to the Anglicans who did not have a place of worship. Before Gaddafi, there were 39 churches in Tripoli. The ex-President closed all of them but the one we are in now.
Are there worries for the security of the community?
The topic of security is a very delicate one. We have a community of Christians in Sebha [a city in southern Libya] made up of Africans. There, a secular brother helps us – there are catechists around the city. However, we cannot celebrate the Eucharist. Two years ago, a priest who had gone there was shot, another had his car stolen in the middle of the desert.
Among African Christians are there also those trying to make it to Europe?
We do not encourage people to take the risk of crossing the Mediterranean. You cannot encourage them to risk their lives. When we discover that someone is planning to make the trip, we try to dissuade him or her. We try to help those who arrive through Caritas Libya, furthermore there is a doctor who comes here often, as well as nurses.”
Are there other priests and religious institutions in the country?
Last February, I was also entrusted with the Apostolic Vicariate of Benghazi, but I still cannot commute between the two cities for security reasons. There is a church in Benghazi in the quarter of Suq al-Hut, located in a combat zone and, they tell me, that until recently the Islamic State was there. There is a priest in the area, but he is not in the city at the moment. There are no churches in other cities.
What do you feel are the main duties of your mission in Libya?
At the moment, undertaking the pastoral care of the people who come here, encouraging them as much as possible, living by the Word, being cordial, forgiving and loving. This is important to me, because what you do matters less than how you do it.
Do you think that it is a mission of resistance?
I do not think that Libya is a closed chapter for the Church, even if there are difficulties, and more so for Benghazi than for Tripoli. Before the revolution, with the presence of embassies, the Church was more active with the participation of non-Libyan residents. Looking ahead, the country’s return to stability will lead to the reopening of embassies, to new contracts for workers who will then need a spiritual guide. This is a particular moment where are we living together with the entire country.
Do you give recommendations to your parishioners regarding security?
No, that is all left up to their common sense.
This article was translated from the original Italian