OXFORD, England (CNS) — Catholic clergy in eastern Libya vowed to continue ministering to local church members despite an upsurge in fighting around the provincial capital of Benghazi.
“Although things are quieter this week, the fighting hasn’t stopped. But most Catholics are relatively safe in their local workplaces,” Bishop Sylvester Magro, leader of the city’s Catholic community, told Catholic News Service Oct. 22.
“Like other local citizens, we’re not receiving help or protection from the authorities and the situation is too unclear to permit any normal life. But we’re continuing our prayers and Masses even though attendance has fallen and many people are now afraid to come to church,” he said as militia commanded by a retired general attacked Islamist positions around the city.
Bishop Magro said Benghazi’s shops and markets remained well stocked with food and clothing, while there had been “no open hostilities” toward local Catholics.
However, a priest in al-Bayda said Catholic fears had been heightened by recent incidents, including a break-in at a Catholic chapel in Tobruk.
“There’s been no frontal hostility or open bad will toward us, but some groups appear to want to intimidate us by stirring interreligious resentments,” Franciscan Father Piotr Borkowski said.
The Polish priest said Oct. 22 that it is difficult to determine what ordinary Muslims “really think and feel about” Catholics. “But most people just want to live peacefully and safely here, and there are still hopes the situation will calm down. We ourselves have always been careful never to provoke anyone by giving the impression we’re here to spread Christianity,” he told CNS.
In an Oct. 18 statement, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy said they were “concerned” by military operations carried out by the anti-Islamist militia and believed “Libya’s security challenges and the fight against terrorist organizations” could only be sustained by regular armed forces under central government control.
Agence France-Presse reported Oct. 20 that at least 75 people had been killed since militia led by retired Gen. Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive against Islamist groups five days earlier.
Father Borkowski said his congregation in al-Bayda had declined to about 35 members as some Catholics preferred not to risk coming to the church.
“The vast majority of Libyans don’t want Sharia or Islamic rule, but just to live peacefully and make the most of their possibilities,” he explained.
“This is a huge country with a small population, and given its great oil wealth, it could be a veritable paradise,” the priest added. “But much of the population, frightened about Islamicization and the violence … has withdrawn and is unwilling to show itself.”