“I’ll be there”. Despite the ongoing civil war the apostolic vicar of Tripoli, Bishop George Bugeja, will be in Bari.
Religious leaders from countries overlooking the great sea will be participating in the “Mediterranean: frontier of peace”, a meeting being promoted by the CEI to be held in Puglia from 19 to 23 February. The apostolic vicar of Tripoli, Bishop George Bugeja, of Maltese origin, who has been in Tripoli first as coadjutor in 2015 and then as titular bishop, will bring forth the sufferings and expectations of Libya which “needs serenity and lasting peace,” he explains to Avvenire.
The “Mediterranean: frontier of peace” meeting promoted by the CEI is a sort of Mediterranean Synod that will bring to Bari (from 19 to 23 February) over sixty bishops from the churches overlooking the great sea representing 3 continents (Europe, Asia and Africa). The meeting will be concluded by Pope Francis. On the steps of the “prophet of peace” Giorgio La Pira, the bishops will collaborate to explore concrete paths of reconciliation and fraternity among peoples in an area marked by wars, persecutions, emigrations and inequalities.
The political crisis that has intensified for some weeks also affects the ecclesial community.
“However, by God’s grace, in the last few days we had some positive glimpses which will allow us to move few steps forward towards a tomorrow without fighting”, says Bugeja.
“I am thinking of the ceasefire agreement and the Berlin conference which I hope will be successful. As a Church in this complex reality, we hope and pray that the Libyans can find a solution in the sign of fraternity. A solution, however, that is not ephemeral”.
Now the Church has become an ecclesial community that lives in the midst of bombs and in the midst of the clashes that began before the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, and it has been reduced to a minimum.
The bishop said “There are no Libyan Christians among us. We are all foreigners, numerous in passing. In the country we are a total of about 3,000 faithful out of 7 million inhabitants. However, in recent months many are leaving Libya with the help of specific programmes.” Catholics are only granted two places of worship in the entire former Italian colony: one in Tripoli and the other one in Benghazi.” Saint Francis is the last church in the capital. The Cathedral has also become a mosque: the great mosque in Algeria square”, says bishop Bugeja.
In the city, next to the bishop, there is only the Franciscan friar Magdy Helmy. And then 8 Missionary Sisters of Charity of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, engaged as volunteers in two government institutes. The prelate added “The number of priests and religious had dropped in the two apostolic vicariates of Tripoli and Benghazi: since 2011 due to the conflict and then in 2014 due to security reasons”.
Your Excellency, looking at the Bari meeting, what contribution can the Church make to unite the peoples?
If I think of Libya, as disciples of the Risen Lord, we want to be a presence of reconciliation, soliciting mutual brotherhood. Here the Church has always been led by the Franciscans. And following the example of Francis of Assisi, we try to live in a land that is almost 100% Muslim, promoting respect and friendship.
Are you a clandestine Church?
Ours is a Church that devotes itself to the Gospel through the humble ways of service and witness. We feel welcomed and free to be Christian. It is true that we are a small community but one that it’s not hidden. We are officially recognised by government authorities. The Holy See re-established diplomatic relations with Libya in 1997. And the current apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Alessandro D’Errico, has been accredited to the Libyan state since 25 March 2018 although he resides in Malta where he is Nuncio in turn.
What is the face of the Church in Libya?
Yes, we are truly a Catholic Church, an international one. In fact, the ecclesial community is made up mostly of Filipinos, Indians and Pakistanis. And then there are others coming from southern Sahara, from Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. For this reason Masses are said in English.
And how is the faith lived?
When Gaddafi came to power, Tripoli had 39 churches or chapels. With the confiscation of the Church’s assets, after the 1969 revolution, only the church of Saint Francis remained. Our Sunday celebrations are held on Friday because Sunday is a working day here. On feast days two Masses are held in the morning and they are well attended: from 400 to 500 faithful during each liturgy. This is why I argue that Libya should not be considered as a closed chapter for the Church. We are going through a difficult situation together with the whole country, but we are sure that the future will be better both for the whole nation and for the Church. The Catholic community is a messenger of peace but also a social outpost.
The first commitment is to stimulate, as far as possible, all the people who come to us, to be friendly and to know how to forgive. It doesn’t matter how much you do, but how you do it. And we are bound to act driven by mutual love; otherwise what we do is worthless. As for helping the poor, we have a Caritas desk and a Social service with the presence of a doctor and some nurses to assist the most needy, in particular migrants who come from Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and from other sub-Saharan countries.
How do you build dialogue with Islam?
Due to the difficult situation in the country, I did not have the opportunity to continue weaving meeting and exchange networks as I used to up until 2014.
Is there a risk that Islamic fundamentalism increases?
I think the terrorism season is over. I have been in Libya for 5 years and I have never had any serious threats. Indeed, I have and we had always received the support of the competent authorities.
Libya is the “springboard” to Europe, to be reached also by makeshift boats and often relying on human traffickers. But those who arrive in the country can end up in detention centers where torture and bullying take place.
As a Christian community we do not encourage migrants to cross the Mediterranean. No man, woman or child should be forced to risk their lives. When we find out that someone is going to leave, we try to discourage him. We are close to those looking for a better tomorrow through Caritas Libya and working together with UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration or other NGOs in the area.
What about the West?
I don’t think the West has forgotten Libya. But it could do more if all the countries on the other side of the Mediterranean spoke with one voice, instead of moving on the basis of individual state gains.
Bishop George Bugeja, the apostolic vicar of Tripoli, is of Maltese origin. He is 57 years old and a Franciscan Friar Minor. Graduated in London in journalism, he was an official of the Congregation for the evangelisation of peoples. In 2015 Pope Francis appointed him coadjutor bishop of the apostolic vicariate of Tripoli. In the same year he received episcopal ordination. Following the resignation of Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli (who passed away on 30 December 2019), he succeeded him in 2017 as apostolic vicar. From 2016 to 2019 he was apostolic administrator of the Benghazi vicariate.