Libya has 6.4 million inhabitants, including about 75,000 Catholics. Most of them live in the Apostolic Vicariate of Tripoli, much less belong to the Apostolic Vicariate of Benghazi. The Apostolic Vicariate of Derna has been vacant since 1948, as well as the Apostolic Prefecture of Misurata has been vacant sinc 1969.
After the revolution in September 1969 an agreement between the Holy See and the Libyan government was signed on October 10th, 1970. The church property was nationalized, two church buildings were left to the Catholic Church for use. The maximum number of priests, who were permitted to operate in the state, was ten. However, hundreds of nurses were recruited for the hospital service.
The colonial era
After Italian troops had occupied the coastal cities of Libya, Mgr Antonnelli came to Libya in 1911 and established the Apostolic Vicariate of Libya on February 23rd, 1913. His successor, P. Tonizza took care of the infrastructure and built a cathedral, kindergartens, schools and parish centers. In 1927, the Apostolic Vicariate was split into the two vicariates of Tripoli and Benghazi in the Cyrenaica. Although the church had to look after the Italian soldiers during the occupation, she cultivated very good relations with the Muslim population.
The independent Libya
In 1951, Libya became independent and formed a constitutional monarchy under King Idris al-Sanussi.
On September 1st, 1969 Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi came to power. On July 21st, 1970, he announced the confiscation of the goods of the Italians and their expulsion, which were completed by September of the year. The church was affected by this act. After tough negotiations, six priests could stay in Tripoli and Benghazi, they were allowed to celebrate their liturgy. Most of the churches were closed, although the Constitution to guarantee freedom of religion. The cathedral of the capital was converted into a mosque. In retrospect, this act is considered a “cleansing” of the church, which was then almost entirely Italian. Today, it is truly international.
From February 2nd to 5th, 1976, there was a conference for the Islamic-Christian dialogue in Tripoli. Following this conference the church in Benghazi returned to the Christian and a second bishop were installed. Finally, it led to the diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
In 1977, al-Qadhafi proclaimed the establishment of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. In the aftermath guest workers came from the Philippines, Poland and Korea and the church grew in number. Since 1988, Arab Christians came as worker.
In 1986, the Catholic Bishop of Tripoli, Giovanni Martinelli, was arrested along with three priests and a nun for ten days. This action is often seen as revenge for the official meeting between Pope John Paul II and the Rabbi of Rome in that year.
Later in the 80s, the relation between the Libyan state and the Holy See gradually improved, eventually diplomatic relations between Libya and the Vatican were established in 1997 and the two Apostolic Vicariate, Benghazi and Tripoli, were errected.
The state showed significantly more interest in interreligious and intercultural dialogue since 2004 and a number of events took place.
In February 2006, the church in Benghazi and the house of the Franciscans were set on fire. This was a result of the unrest that had triggered the Muhammad cartoons in Denmark.
The Church in Libya is mainly committed to social work. Various religious work in centers for the disabled, orphans and the elderly or in hospitals.
Since the riots
From January 29th to February 2nd the bishops of the North African bishops’ conference (CERNA), including the Bishops of Tripoli and Benghazi, hold a meeting in Algiers (Algeria). There they said that the Christians in the Middle East are part of the change, they do not oppose it. The protests were a sign of the desire for freedom and dignity, especially among the younger generation. The residents claim to participate in the governance of the country as citizens with full rights and responsibilities. The bishops also call for a greater respect for religious freedom in the framework of human rights. Under Gaddafi the Christians were allowed to exercise their cult. They could not only celebrate Mass in the churches, but also in private homes and businesses. Even prison chaplaincy was possible.
The Christians are concerned that with the overthrow of Gadhafi, there will be an Islamist government, which then restricts the freedoms of Christians more then before.
While most foreigners have left the country, the migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa often face the difficulty that they have not insufficient identity documents. Many of them have sought refuge in the churches. Religious in the country attempt to assist these worker through their embassies and UNHCR. The bishops, priests and religious, with very few exceptions, remain in the country with those Christians, who can not leave it.
The church is composed exclusively of foreigners, and so their hands are tied in the conflict. She cannot interfere or take sides. Her opportunity and challenge is to stay with the defenseless ones and to show solidarity with them. In the declaration of the bishops’ conference she had expressed her political option.