Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in Benghazi, Libya. Christians are afraid of a takeover of the country by Islamic fundamentalists should Mr Muammar Gaddafi fall from power. CNS photo

BEIRUT/VATICAN CITY – Christians in Libya are afraid that a takeover of the country by Islamic fundamentalists, should leader Muammar Gaddafi fall, would threaten their safety, said a Franciscan priest who has served in the North African nation for seven years.

“Under Gaddafi, we’ve been protected,” the priest told Catholic News Service from Rome on Feb 24, eight days after leaving the country on a pre-planned trip. He asked not to be identified so as not to jeopardise his return to Libya.

The priest said he left Libya the day before a revolt against Mr Gaddafi started in the eastern city of Benghazi. “I didn’t expect so much to happen,” he said, referring to the rapid escalation of violence.

Filipinos trapped in the violent upheaval took refuge inside the cathedral of the apostolic vicariate of Tripoli as they awaited word that safe passage out of the country was secured, a missionary priest said.
The Filipinos had camped out in St Francis Church in Tripoli since Feb 21 as firefights raged around the Libyan capital, said Franciscan Fr Hermilo Vilason.

The priest, who serves as chaplain to Filipino migrants in Libya, told the Philippine bishops’ Episcopal Commission for Pastoral Care for Migrants and Itinerant People that people have awakened daily to the sound of gunfire, reported the Asian Church news agency UCA News.

With pro-democracy movements moving across North Africa and the Middle East, the situation in Libya is also worrying the Vatican because of the loss of human lives, “the targeting of civilians and of peaceful protesters, and the indiscriminate use of force”, a Vatican representative told the UN Human Rights Council.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican representative to UN agencies in Geneva, told the council on Feb 25 that the Vatican supports all efforts to encourage a dialogue between pro-democracy demonstrators and Mr Gaddafi’s government.

Since late January, demonstrators across the region have taken to the streets calling for democratic reforms; the protests led to leadership changes in Egypt and Tunisia, but saw a violent crackdown in Libya where many have been killed. Foreign workers are being evacuated and about 100,000 people were said to have fled to Egypt and Tunisia.

Bishop Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, apostolic vicar of Tripoli, Libya, said 2,000 Eritreans showed up at a church and church-run facilities on Feb 27 asking for help.

“My heart is breaking because we can’t do anything for them. My thoughts go out especially to the women and children, who truly are the ‘least’ the Gospel talks about,” Bishop Martinelli told Fides, the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples.

The bishop said the church was able to secure seats on a flight to Italy for 54 of the Eritreans who have documents from the UN High Commission for Refugees. The others all were hoping to stay inside church properties “but it’s impossible”, the bishop said. “We are trying to help them anyway we can, helping them pay rent.”

Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi said on Feb 25 that the Vatican obviously was saddened by instances of violence connected to the pro-democracy demonstrations across the region and especially by the extent of the violence in Libya.

In an editorial for the Vatican Television Centre, Fr Lombardi noted that many observers watching what is happening in North Africa and the Middle East see it “as a possible ‘springtime of the Arab world’” as far as democracy goes.

While the encouragement of outsiders is needed, he said, “the Arab peoples’ true growth in freedom and democracy must be born from within, without counterproductive external interference”.

The world’s democracies must offer the region’s peoples “friendship and dialogue”, he said. - CNS

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