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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N 109 (Suppl.), April 2009






Bishop Giovanni Martinelli, O.F.M.

Apostolic Vicar of Tripoli, Libya



LIBYA - Official Name: The Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya

Capital: Tripoli

Surface area: 1,759,540 km2

Population: about 6 million inhabitants

Density: 3,20 inhabitants per km2

Official language: Arabic

Religion: Islam;

Money: Libyan Dinar


Ancient History

Human settlement in Libya dates back to prehistory. This era left proof of a population with a treasure-trove of drawings, paintings and engravings in mountain caves, mainly found in the southern part of the country. Given its strategic position, Libya has always been a focal point for invaders. The Phoenicians established colonies here in 7 AD: Sabrata, Tripoli, Oya, Leptis Magna and the city of Soltan. The Greeks arrived about the same time as Phoenicians and concentrated themselves in the east the country. They founded there Chahat (Korina), Tokra (Tokhira), Sousse (Apolonia), Talmitha (Batlaymus), EI-Malj (Barka) and Benghazi (Barnik). After the reign of Romans over the Mediterranean, their power extended over the Libyan coast with the construction of Leptis Magna and Sabrata which both served as ports for the Tran Saharan trade of ivory, slaves, precious metals ... At the end of 4th century AD, the coastline of Libya was marked by Christianity. In the 7th century, the Islamic religion established itself in the country after the victorious Islamic conquest of northern Africa.


Modern History

Life in Libya was relatively peaceful until the Italian invasion in 1911. Afterwards, one event followed another and the English spread their empire over the Governorate of Tripoli while the French extended theirs over the region of Fezzan until Libya, rewarded by a UN resolution, finally proclaimed independence on December 24, 1951.

On September 1, 1969, the country became a Republic before the rise to power of Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya on March 2 1977.



Libya is situated in the middle of the northern coast of the African continent. Its vast territory stretches out to the mountains of northern central Africa, bounded to the east by Egypt, to the south by Sudan, Chad and Niger, and to the West by Algeria and Tunisia.

Given its geographic location, Libya is viewed as a bridge connecting Africa to Europe. Moreover, its privileged place on the southern Mediterranean coast led to a direct relationship with the key historic events which have marked this zone.

Thus, Libya represents by its strategic position a link between the east and west of the Arab world, being the melting-pot of many different Arab-Islamic cultural and sedentary currents.

Libya is the third largest African country after Algeria and Sudan. It is made up of wide plateaus and tabular relief, some of them (Djebel Auenat) dating back to Precambrian.

Most of the Libyan population is concentrated along the nearly 2000 km of the Mediterranean coast. Two regions are usually singled out: Tripolitania, to the West, and the Cyrenaica to the East. Between them, the Gulf of Sirte, where the sands from the Sahara join the Mediterranean Sea, is made up of little undulating sedimentary terrains, which explains the presence of many water tables and oil reservoirs. In South Fezzan region with the of Sebha.


Libya's historic-social identity

In spite the various occupations endured, Libya has retained a fundamental, physical and human unity. From the geographic point of view it does not match the Mashrek or the Maghreb. From the human point of view the country has its own homogeneity deriving from a Bedouin, nomad farming population in a much closed tribal context. The nomad-tribal characteristic explains the difficult penetration of foreign influence.

After the year 1950, thanks to the oil industry, the country has had an economic boom that has opened the doors of the hard austere farming conditions. A superficial overlook may lead us to consider Libya as a fanatic country, extremist and sometimes tyrannous. In reality Libya is a country with a vocation for dialogue and for co existence with other cultures and religions. Archeology itself proves it. The most significant example is the old city (Medina) of Tripoli. In a relatively small area one could find still standing an old Synagogue, a Catholic Church (since 1680) which is now reopened for worship by the Anglican community, an Orthodox Church and a Mosque and some foreign consulates.


Some historical hints can help us understand the reasons for such co existence with other cultures and religions.


A - Christianity in Libya in the first centuries

The spread of Christianity in North Africa started quite early. Certainly it was present before the year 70. Among the Jews that were present for the first preaching of St Peter in Jerusalem on Pentecost day there were also some from "the parts of Libya from Cyrene" (Acts 2:10). Probably some of them were converted and brought back in their country the seed of the new faith.

According to a tradition in the Coptic Orthodox Church, St Mark was a Jew from Cyrene who once converted to the Gospel moved to Egypt where he proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ and there was martyred. Lucio of Cyrene too is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (13:1) among the "prophets and elders" that imposed their hands on Barnaba and Saul.

The fact that St Victor from Leptis Magna a city not far away from Tripoli and contemporary of Emperor Septimus Severius, was elected Pope in the year 186, shows us the importance of the Christianity in Africa in the heart of the Catholic Church during that time.

Christianity in the 5th century was spread all over the Roman Africa. It is documented in a synod held in Carthage on the June 411 in which not less than 565 bishops of 430 Episcopal Sees took part.

The missing interaction among the Berber population was fatal for Christianity. It was firstly reduced to few numbers by the invasion of the Vandals at the end of the 5th century then completely destroyed by the continuous invasions of the Berber pagans.

Still in the documents of the synod of Carthage in 534, soon after the Byzantine conquest, only 217 Bishops out of 565 in the year 411 were present to resume the direction of the Church. The Byzantine conquest was very hard with continuous devastations and disorders from all sides, with the consequence of abandoning many places. At the time of Emperor Justinian there is a revival to the conversion to Christianity which was rather imposed or accepted only for convenience. In fact after the death of Justinian many of the Berber tribes returned to their traditional religion.

The population present in the first half of the 7th century was made up of ethnic groups, distinct and quite different from each other for their origin, number and religion. The most important as regards the political and military power, even though less numerous was that of the Byzantine people made up of administrators, soldiers and traders who were living mainly on the coast of Cyrene and Tripoli. Another ethnic group was that so called "Africans" descendants of the Italics and romanticized

Berbers from the time of the Roman Empire. They were mainly living within the Cyrene and in the surroundings of Tripoli. The Jews too were present and were well organized. The most numerous group was that of the Berbers, autonomous people, who were left on the margins of the Latin civilization, preserving jealously their own customs and civilization. They formed more a linguistic community than an ethnic group.

Just before the Arab conquest Christianity was spread all over Libya and North Africa. This extension of Christianity was however often merely a cover.


B - the Arab conquest

The conquest of Libya by the Arabs was easy and rapid being a region quite poor economic wise and scarcely inhabited. Cyrene was conquered in 642 and the whole of Libya in 670.

As in other parts, Islam spread in Libya above all as a logical result of the Arab invasion and for economic reasons. Islam found a fertile ground because of the Berbers' nature itself. For this reason, one can speak of Islam in North Africa rather than Islam in Libya; Islam as accepted and lived by the Berber inhabitants. With their ability to assimilate the Berbers did not take long to welcome the cultures they came across and make them their own. Accepting Islam they were at the very beginning of the Islamic expansion of North Africa itself. The Almoravi in the beginning and then the Alohadi, founded two vast Islamic empires that stretched from Senegal to Tripolitania to Sicily up to Spain. A strong sense of religiosity is another Berber characteristic. In the Christian epoque it showed itself both in the number of martyrs as well as Doctors of the Church, among who are St Augustine, Tertullian and St Cyprian.

To these positive characteristics one has to add a negative one: the natural tendency towards the tribal individualism being the cause of Christian heresies such as Aryanism and Donatism as well as the fall of two great Muslim empires and many lasting arguments that characterize the history of North Africa. These characteristics to the service of Islam have influenced Islam all over the North Africa and started various Confraternities that brought Islam closer to the life of the people. It is also known as marabuttistic Islam taking the name of a particular and a spiritual elder Sciecco dedicated to prayer and ascetic life to whom the people went for blessings, prayers and spiritual advices. Some of these became founders of religious movements called Tari'qa which means road-way confraternity.


C - Libya and the Church since 1969

Christianity has never ceased to be present in North Africa. From the XII-XIII century Christians are no longer indigenous but rather foreigners coming from Pisa and Genoa in Italy and from Malta. Christianity is now of a foreign brand to whom the Church provides her assistance thanks to the missionaries.

In 1219 St Francis traveled to Egypt, while his followers went to Morocco in 1224-25 where they received martyrdom. They were present occasionally in Tunisia and since 1628 they were present permanently in Libya. The Church of "Santa Maria degli Angeli" in the old city of Tripoli has been erected in 1645 while that in Benghazi dedicated to the "Immaculate" was founded in 1858 with the permission of the Sultan of Constantinople.

In 1641 the first Apostolic Prefecture was established with a succession of Apostolic Prefects up to 1911 when the Church in Tripoli became an Apostolic Vicariate while that in Benghazi in 1927.

With the Revolution of the 1st September 1969 and the expulsion of the Italians in 1970, the Church is purified from its Italian identity. Today the Church in Libya has a true catholic and international character. It is formed by Christians coming from Arab countries, Korea, Philippines, Polish, Maltese Italians, French and sub Saharan Africans from French speaking and English speaking countries. Christians have been granted two places of worship, one in Tripoli and another in Benghazi. They are free to gather for prayer in many other places all throughout Libya wherever the priest is called.

There are two important events that characterize the relationship between the Revolution of the Leader Muammar Gheddafi and the Churches regards the Christian Muslim Dialogue are:

The Congress for Muslim Christian Dialogue which took place in Tripoli from the 2nd- 5th February 1976 which wanted to demonstrate to the world that the closing down of churches in Libya at the time of the expulsion of the Italians in 1970 was not an opposition against the Church but against the Italian Fascist Colonialism to which the Church was somehow associated.

The Diplomatic relations between the Holy See on the 10th March 1997. This sign in the way of Dialogue on the part of the Holy See was very much appreciated by the Libyan authorities taken that Libya at that particular moment was under the embargo imposed by America for the Lockerby issue. Through these relations the Holy See wanted to show to the world that the conflicts can be solved through dialogue and not through embargos.


Since then many other meetings of dialogue between the Catholic Church (Holy See) and other Christian denominations are organized with the Islamic Call Society "Jamiyat Dawat Islamiyat".

What kind of presence does the Church have today in Libya? ("The Churches in the Magreb in the year 2000" - Document of the Episcopal Conference of CERNA 1999).

Our Church is "a Church on the way to Galilee" that makes use of simple meetings in the neighborhood, like those among friends or those at work making our service a tangible and efficacious sign of love that goes beyond all the divisions and obstacles.

It is "a Church - Sacrament" that transmits life and hope especially to the needy....

There are many every day experiences that can become a holy sign. The face of "a Church -Family" that welcomes not only the Christians but also the Muslims. Our Church may be said to be a community that is open to meet and live relations of friendship to create the family of God's children.

The identity of our church is Afro-Asiatic with a European background.


Conflict and Co Existence

If the Mediterranean marked by the Latin Christian culture and religion, but also by Greek and a Muslim culture, has been a history of conflicts and co existence, Libya, crossroads between Africa and the Mediterranean, reflects a co existence between different races, cultures and religions along its history. Today it continues to propose an identity which is faithful to Islam with a desire and openness to dialogue with a pride that forms part of its Bedouin roots.

In this social and political context there is no place for religious fundamentalism even though there is a strong resentment against a certain political fundamentalism of the West as regards the rights of the Palestinians and the Arab world in general.

Anybody coming from the lay world of the West, or from Asia or from Africa to Libya, will be certainly impressed how in a Muslim context the day is merged with the call to pray proclaimed from the minaret of the many mosques in the country.

Our presence in a Muslim context is a commitment and a responsibility. Our Church, a fragile community made up mostly of African is pilgrim and foreign in this land but strong and courageous to witness the faith in Christ even in prisons. We believe it is true that God chooses what is weak to the strong. It is the logic and wisdom of the Bible and of any mission anywhere today.

Our commitment and responsibility is to have a clear identity and a witness that takes no side against another but a desire to welcome all that is positive to built bridges for a civilization of dialogue and love.



cfr attached document - Fr Allan ofm






Socio-Pastoral Care for Migrants

Situationaire- April 2008


As a Church in Libya

In Libya, the migration is taking place on a wide scale and the Church is made of various ethno-linguistic groupings. We have: Eastern Europeans, Nigerians, Sudanese, Cameroonese, Congolese, Ghanian, Somalians, Ethiopeans Eritrean, people from Chad and those from Asiatic region, as well as, Arabic speaking Christians from Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Palestine. It is composed of a very diverse population in which majority are Christians, especially Catholics and with other religious confessions having been experiencing great needs and concerns for their survival.

By reason of several opportunities, many people are moving north to Libya in search for a better life. This massive rural/urban and country to country migration has been primary cause by the unabated Ethno-political conflicts and wars. And so, people are moving to safer grounds and drier inland regions and locate adjacent areas closer to the shorelines.

Thus, the result is the movement of peasants and their livestock in search of more fertile pasture land areas. These prevalent issues has created tremendous problems which include widespread desertification, massive destruction of local habitat of flora and fauna and degradation environment, extending damages to streams and rivers.

In the region of Sebha, comprises the town/villages of Murzuk, Gatt and Ubari are located in the South Central of Libya serve as the catch basin of all who enter Libya coming from the different region of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Our presence in Sebha, is to extend our pastoral care and focus mainly to the spiritual needs of all the Catholics and other Christian denominations with more 150 participants in every liturgical celebration from different towns and villages. And also to respond to the basic needs of the children and youth, most especially to their basic education. Most of the Africans living with their meager income and survive paying for their house rent and other necessities for their survival

The Church in Libya wishes to be a more effective witness to the love of Christ to all the immigrants, migrant workers and people on the move that are coming to us seeking our assistance. To do this, we wish to start and animate the work of Caritas Libya. It has become a significant driving force to our socio-pastoral works in Libya over the past 5 years.

Since 2005 up to the present, the project in Tripoli alone has documented more than 3,000 beneficiaries coming from 26 states of Sub-Saharan region of African and hundreds of them were repatriated to their respective home country through network organization like, the International Organization for Migration (IOM). And the project also responded to the various cases seeking different kind of immediate assistance like; food, clothing, temporary shelter, burial, and repatriations through border exits.

Thus, in order to respond more effectively to the various demands, the Social Service Ministry- CARITAS-Libya was restructured through different services to focus to their pressing needs and concerns, e.g.;


Welcome Service

The Welcome Service has a 2 full time staff (Religious Sisters) and 5 volunteers. They are directly responsible for the documentation of all who are coming to the church for assistance. And also tasked to establish a welcoming place and create an atmosphere conducive for listening to the personal stories of pain, difficulties, and struggle in their faith-life journey. The urgent and common relief that we can only offer in this service area, is to extend moral support and a minimal material assistance like, clothes, food, fare, communications to home-country and temporary shelter and referrals in case to case basis.


Family and Domestic Skills Service

Through our house-to-house visitation, we were able to determine their felt needs and concerns. We come up with the support for the educational needs of their children through a scholarship program to selected families. Along this line, we also develop a sustainable support program for mothers by introducing training skill courses like sewing, cosmetology, cooking and other kitchen household management to prepare them to the current demands in domestic job hiring in the city to help them rise from their sub-human living condition.

Scholarship for Youth and Children


  • 60 scholars (children and youth belong to 30 family beneficiaries of the program)

  • With regular religious formation program

  • Divided into 5 language groupings


-Arabic (Middle East)



-African native language


Support program for Women/ Mothers

  6 on-going skills training activities- January-May 2006-2007

- household management training (40 mother participants)

- Sewing and cooking skills (40 mother-participants)

- Embroidery (20 participants)

- English language lesson (20 participants)

  • Income generating project (60 mother beneficiaries) From December 2006-on-going

- All-season card making

- Rosary- making


3. Health Care Service

At present, we only limit our services to the level of primary health care need of our parishioners and also to the particular health needs of the local people. Some cases beyond primary health care will be coursed through a referral system with the help of our volunteer Filipino doctors and nurses. In the last 23 months, there were 1,414 beneficiaries who availed our health care services all coming from Sub-Saharan Africa and from the Asian region.

At the end of the year 2007, we were able to conceptualize two support programs; the mini-laboratory testing room and the mobile pre-natal check up team.


Health Volunteer Staff

  • 7 volunteer doctors (4- Filipino, 1- Syrian, 1 Ghanian, 1- Jordanian and 1-Indian)

  • 7 Filipina nurses

  • 4 Filipina midwives

  • 2 clerical staff (Filipina and Ghanian)

Prison Service Ministry

Through the generosity of the prison authorities we were able to visit several prison centres from different sites in Tripoli. Every Saturday morning is the allotted set time for a visit to prison cells, either for men or for women together with kids and children.


Observation and Strategies

At present we are using a two-pronged approach in our Prison Pastoral Services due to some unavoidable circumstances in securing permission from the higher authority and in securing permit from the respective prison camps.

In the past we find it comfortable using the Diplomatic approach in our usual prison visits, but lately, we have encountered a slight delay and interruption due to the strict compliance of the letter permit from prison authorities.

After a series of conferences with those who are involved in the prison ministry, we have come up with an approach- a Mass-based Approach or people's Approach"' by maximizing the effort and dedication of the lay volunteers, priests and nuns.


Jail we visited

a.) 6 -Prison camps (Men)

With more than 2000 inmates (Sub-Saharan Africans)

- Documented cases

- drug trafficking

- no documents

- thief


b.) 2- Prison camps (Women) With 300 inmates

Documented cases

- drug trafficking

- no documents

- prostitution


c.) Liturgical and pastoral services to Misurata Refugee's Rehab Center

- 50 Eritrean and Ethiopean children

- 400 refugees (Eritrean and Ethiopean)


At the later part of 2007, there has an increasing trend in the number of our beneficiaries who came to us daily asking for assistance, and we felt the burden of this great task and responsibility to our flock, considering the skills and capacity of our volunteer staff in handling various cases of the immigrants and people on the move that are unceasingly coming to us.



Fr. Allan Arcebuche, OFM