Christians celebrate new religious freedoms in Libya

By Ecumenical News International
September 21, 2007

A new wave of religious freedom is sweeping across Libya, say Christians in the north African country. This follows three decades during which, observers say, the tiny Christian community faced restrictions due to the overwhelmingly Muslim nation's hostile stance towards the West - writes Fredrick Nzwili.

"People are respecting us. They accept us. We are free," says Roman Catholic Bishop Giovanni Martinelli, who is based in the capital Tripoli.

The 1969 revolution that brought Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi to power led to church buildings being confiscated and then closed down. Catholics were allowed to keep only two churches, one in Tripoli and the other in Benghazi.

The formal name of the country is the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, and many human rights organizations say the country is authoritarian.

"The biggest church was a cathedral, but was turned into a mosque. They took all the churches with the revolution," recalls Martinelli.

But now there are Greek Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Anglican communities, says Bishop Martinelli, a Franciscan monk

The international community imposed sanctions against Libya in the early 1990s after it was accused of involvement in the bombing of a US airliner over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. The UN Security Council lifted the sanctions in 2003 when the country accepted responsibility for the attack, and agreed to pay compensation to the families of the victims.

During the period of sanctions, the Vatican quietly continued a dialogue with Tripoli. "The sanctions were political," recounts Martinelli, who was jailed by the Libyan authorities in 1986 when the United States bombed Tripoli.

Most worshippers are Africans, mainly illegal migrants, and Asians, and Martinelli now celebrates three services in different languages every Friday, whilst the Muslims go to their mosques. There are Christian services in Korean and English in the morning, and in the afternoon there is a service in Pilipino for the Philippine community. On Sunday the Mass is in Arabic.

Recently, and in a spirit of ecumenism, the bishop allowed a Catholic church, which the secular authorities had closed and taken over after the revolution, to be given to the Anglican community in Libya.

The church building dates back to the 17th century. It was rededicated on 9 March, after having been restored as part of a project to renovate the old City of Tripoli by a committee set up to protect the local heritage.

Still, the Anglicans can now only repaint the church, and must not add anything to the building. They are not even allowed to erect a cross.

Nevertheless, Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox bishops took part together in the rededication service attended by 300 people, including officials of the "Da'wa Islamiya" (Islamic Call Society).

Simon Martin, an Anglican evangelist, said, "We see this as hand of God."

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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