Priest in Libya says church leaders will remain in solidarity

A Catholic official in Libya said church leaders would remain in the country to support Muslims as well as Christians who remained.

"People are frightened -- there's no visible law and order, and absolutely no police or military protection for our churches," said Franciscan Fr. Allan Arcebuche, vicar general of Tripoli's Catholic apostolic vicariate, the church jurisdiction in the region.

"But we're resolved to stay, along with our bishops, as long as there are still Christians here. We must show our solidarity with them, as well as with members of the Muslim community who are working for peace and reconciliation."

In a phone interview Wednesday with Catholic News Service, Arcebuche said he had just celebrated Mass for 150 Filipinos awaiting transport to the Tunisian border. He said many Catholics were unable to attend Mass because of transportation and security problems in the capital, where foreigners were being "stopped in the street by bandits" and robbed of money and valuables.

He added that another group -- Philippine and Indian Catholics, including children and pregnant women -- had arrived in Tripoli from Benghazi, Tobruk and Misrata and were awaiting evacuation by ship to Malta, because the capital's airport was closed by fighting.

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"But others have chosen to stay against the advice of their governments, so we still have congregations, and our priests are helping Catholics decide on their best course of action," Arcebuche said. "Although some local militia members have warned Christians to leave Libya, many Muslims are reassured by our presence here. We've promised the church will stay with them in their struggles and difficulties."

Libya, which is 97 percent Sunni Muslim, was home to at least 40,000 Catholics, mostly expatriates, before the autumn 2011 overthrow of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, although many are believed to have left during the conflict.

Last December, the country's parliament backed the adoption of Shariah, or Islamic law, but assured Christian churches they would be free to continue activities in Libya, where fighting between government forces and Islamist militias left hundreds dead after June 25 elections.

Foreign governments arranged to evacuate their citizens in late July, after attacks on Italian, French, Russian and Jordanian diplomatic posts in Tripoli and Benghazi.

Tripoli's apostolic vicar, Bishop Giovanni Martinelli, told the Vatican's Fides news agency on Monday he was determined to stay "even if only one Christian remains."

He added that Libya's Catholics were now "reduced to a minimum" and facing "a time of strong ordeal," but said he was "confident a group of people will be here to serve the church."

The Vatican's nuncio in Malta, Archbishop Aldo Cavalli, also responsible for Catholics in Libya, told CNS on Wednesday the reasons for the violence remained "highly complex," adding that he could not predict what would happen.

However, he added that Martinelli and the church's remaining priests and nuns were "very strong people" who could be relied on to "stay with their flocks."

Arcebuche said he believed it had been "very wrong" for Western governments to pull out of Libya after backing the overthrow of Gadhafi, adding that Libyan oil supplies had continued to be pumped to Italy and Europe throughout the 2011 civil war.

"If they had a right to protect the oil, they also had a responsibility to protect the civilian population. As a priest who's been here throughout, I think those who participated in ousting the old regime have a duty to maintain a presence here," he said.

"They helped ignite the conflict and benefited from our resources. So they should face up to consequences of their decisions and help secure our future," he added.

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