Libya, The Catholic Church in
LIBYA, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
The Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriay, commonly known as Libya, is located in North Africa, south of the Mediterranean Sea. Bordered by the Gulf of Sidra to the north, Libya is bordered on the east by egypt, on the southeast by sudan, on the south by chad and niger, and on the west by algeria and tunisia. Containing the northeast section of the Sahara, Libya is a desert region, its agricultural areas restricted to its northern coastline. The central region contains highland areas, with oases marking the Hammada al-Hamra, Fezzan, and Murzuch regions to the south. Farm crops include wheat, barley, dates, citrus fruits, and peanuts, while the region's large oil deposits have made crude oil and refined petroleum products Libya's main exports.
Although Libya became independent in 1951, after a coup by the military in 1969 it was transformed into a military dictatorship. Despite the wealth generated by its
oil exports, Libyan society was hampered by an undeveloped infrastructure, and mismanagement of its socialist economy led to frequent food shortages and other economic hardships. Most Libyans are of Berber or Arab descent; ethnic minorities include Greeks, Maltese, Egyptians, Pakistanis, Indians, and Italians.
Libya is the name by which the ancient Greeks referred to all of northern Africa except Egypt. The following essay presents the history of Libya from the seventh century to the present.
After the Muslims conquered Egypt in the seventh century, they drove west and occupied Libya in 641. Although Christians there were at first tolerated as dhimmi, Christianity languished as the older population gradually embraced both the religion and the language of their Arab conquerors. The Islamization of the country was completed in 1067, when the new tribes from Arabia settled in the land. A prefecture was established at Tripoli in 1643, under the care of Italian Franciscans, who in the early days exercised works of charity in the ports, principally among Christians, merchants, and captives, but did little among the nomadic Sanussi tribes of Libya's desert regions.
Libya remained under Turkish rule for the next several centuries, during which time few inroads were made by the Church. In 1912 the Turks were defeated and an Italian administration took over. Soon settlers arrived in the country, attended by priests, and in 1913 Tripoli was raised to the rank of a vicariate, whose territory covered the whole of Libya. As Italian immigration increased, this vast territory became too great for a single ecclesiastical administration, and in 1927 it was divided into the Vicariate of Tripoli, in the west, and that of Cyrenaica, or Benghazi, in the east. In 1939 two more territories were detached from Cyrenaica: the Prefecture of Misurata and the Vicariate Apostolic of Derna. Derna was entrusted to the Salesians, the other territories remaining in the hands of the Franciscans.
Libya was the scene of heavy fighting between German-Italian and British forces during World War II. When war broke out in 1939, the region's European population was significant, but after occupation by the British
in 1943, the Italian administration was expelled, and many settlers left the country. On Dec. 24, 1951, the region achieved independence as the Kingdom of Libya, and within ten years its economy had strengthened due to the exportation of oil. However, the monarchy was short-lived; on Sept. 1, 1969, a military junta under the leadership of Col. Mu‘ammar Abu Minyar al-Quadhafi took control and began a reign of terror. Active in efforts to destabilize both capitalism and communism, Quadhafi at first attempted militancy by invading Chad in the 1980s, but his failure there led him to support the terrorist efforts of others. While Libyan-sponsored terrorism decreased following a U.N.-imposed trade embargo from 1992–99, they remained a source of conflict within the Middle East. However, by 2000 the Libyan government surprised the world when it took an active role in ending a hostage crisis caused by Philippine rebels, even going so far as to pay the ransom money.
Even before Quadhafi's rise to power, changes had taken place in the number and composition of Libya's Catholic clergy; the number of Franciscans gradually diminished, and the Salesians handed over to Benghazi the administration of the Vicariate of Derna. During the late 20th century, Quadhafi established the Islamic Call Society (ICS), a moderate Islamic group that promoted the Libyan government's political and social agenda while also undermining Islamic fundamentalism and establishing relations with Libya's other faiths.
In 2000 the Church maintained apostolic vicariates in Benghazi and Tripoli, as well as an apostolic prefecture in Misurata. In Tripoli the bishop served the Italian community, while Benghazi's bishop administered to the city's predominately Maltese Catholic population. Coptic and Greek Orthodox clergy also worked in the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi. Libya established diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1997, and as the region' first apostolic nuncio, Bishop Jose Sebastian Laboa defended the courage of the Libyan people during a politically difficult period.
Despite its status as a minority religion in a predominately Muslim nation, the Church took responsibility for a number of charitable and cultural activities, among them hospitals, schools, and homes for the handicapped. Catholic schools, open also to Muslim children, provided education for thousands of Libyan young people. While members of religious orders had been restricted from entering the country during the 1970s and 1980s, this situation was reversed and religious were actively encouraged to enter Libya after U.N.-imposed trade sanctions caused shortages of medical aid and other necessary supplies. While opposing Libya's role in terrorist activities, Pope John Paul II's activism was instrumental in finally lifting the U.N. trade sanctions, thus aiding the region's economy in recovery as Libya moved into the new millennium.
Bibliography: c. bergna, La missione franciscana in Libya (Tripoli 1924); La missione franciscana in Tripoli dal 1510 al 1850 (Tripoli 1925). Conspectus missionum O. F. M. (Rome 1957) 37–47. Bilan du Monde 2:566–569.