“The EU is more concerned about migrants than the country” – message from Mgr George Bugeja
“We are all people of the same God we believe in. In the name of this God we can live in peace like brothers.” This is the message coming from Tripoli sent by Monsignor George Bugeja, OFM, Coadjutor of the Apostolic Vicariate of Tripoli and Administrator of the Apostolic Vicariate of Benghazi.
The signs of the conflict in Libya are everywhere and strongly affect the lives of Christians there said Mgr Bugeja: “In Benghazi, in October 2014, the apostolic vicar, now emeritus, Bishop Sylvester Magro and the priests had to leave the premises of the church and have recently informed me that the church was damaged: it is located in Souq el-Hout area where there is still IS, surely recovery there will be a big challenge. In the Vicariate there are still, however, two Franciscans.”
In the Libyan capital there are now just eight Missionaries of Charity (the Congregation founded by Mother Teresa) and three Franciscan friars left and only two religious in service at the Vicariate of Benghazi.
The charism of St. Francis is reflected in the actions and testimony of those who have chosen to stay in Libya, to offer some hope for the future. “St. Francis was a very practical person,” said Monsignor Bugeja, “and he was able to interpret the will of the Lord in different circumstances of his life. From him I learned to do what I can to help, to live simply, to stay close to the people as much as possible. The rest will be in the hands of the Lord.”
Although the Church’s presence has been reduced to a minimum, the Christian community remains vibrant, especially the Filipino and African Catholics who participate in the celebration of the Sunday Eucharist every Friday in the church of St. Francis. Most of the Africans are from Nigeria, but there are also others from Senegal, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Niger and Ghana. Recently they have been joined by the Europeans who have remained in this region.
“The pastoral work, though limited,” says Monsignor Bugeja, “is very valuable. As a Catholic Church we have no difficulty in celebrating our liturgies. The liturgy can only be celebrated in the church, and only for foreigners. It must always be clear that the Libyans are Muslims, and we respect their faith as they respect ours.”
In Tripoli, pastoral work is restricted to church premises, mainly on Friday, where, “apart from the different Mass celebrations, we prepare the preparatory meetings for the various sacraments for both children and adults, and there are proposed prayer meetings. Through Caritas Libya we also try to offer help to those in need.”
The Church in Libya works mainly with Filipinos and especially with African immigrants. “Even if we are in a difficult financial situation, we try to help them as best as possible. African immigrants, many of whom are poor and in the greatest need, show themselves to be very generous with the little they have.”
In addition to priests and religious, there are also communities cared for by six catechists in Sebha, Obari, Ghat, Murzuk and Brack. Unfortunately, owing to lack of security, moving around is difficult and dangerous said Mgr Bujega: “A priest was shot in a car, which was stolen and then abandoned in the desert.” Despite this, “we recently started going once a month to celebrate the Eucharist in these communities. Fortunately there are domestic flights to Sebha and Obari. Except for Sebha, in the other communities they had not celebrated the Eucharist for two years. In late July, we were informed that the meeting place for the Catholic community in Obari was looted, and whatever could not be stolen was destroyed.”
Sebha is important strategically because it is where African migrants arrive after crossing the desert to try and continue their journey to Europe. “Unfortunately, these people are promised a lot of things, even a path to a better country, but the consequences for them are completely different. We all know what is happening.”
Mgr Bugeja states regretfully that Europe seems more concerned about the possible large scale exodus of refugees from Libya than the difficult situation of Libya itself. He remains hopeful:“Yes it is like this, but lately we have heard many promises, and indeed we have seen that several countries have sent medicine and other necessary supplies. I hope this will continue and that also in the near future some diplomatic representation (embassy) from Europe will make itself present.”