Church origins and missions in Libya

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By Fr John Caruana

Mgr Sylvester Magro OFM Bishop of Benghazi relates that the beginnings of the Church in Libya go back to the origins of Christianity itself. One recalls Simon of Cyrene who helped the Lord carry the Cross during his Passion (Mk 15:21). According to the Coptic Church of Egypt, St Mark the Evangelist was also originally from Cyrene.

Unfortunately however, the Church in Cyrene became famous because of Arius the heretic. One of the most renowned bishops in the fifth century was Sinesius of Tolemaidis. The rapid conquests of the Arab-Muslims in the seventh and twelfth centuries, gradually obliterated Christianity from North Africa. In the beginning of the 12th and 13th centuries, the Christians were no longer the natives of the country, but foreigners, primarily merchants from Pisa, Genoa and Malta.

Permanent presence

It was precisely in 1628 that the Franciscans Friars Minor established a permanent presence in Libya in order to assist the Christians who were enslaved by the Muslims. The church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in the Old Medina of Tripoli, was founded in 1645 and The church of the Immaculate Conception was founded in Benghazi in 1572. In 1641, the congregation for the Propagation of the Faith appointed Fr Pascal Compte OFM as the first Prefect Apostolic of Tripoli who was succeeded by 52 other Prefects until 1913, when Pope St Pius X nominated the first Bishop. Fourteen years later, the Church in Libya was divided into two ecclesiastical jurisdictions, Tripoli and Benghazi, while Pope Pius XI appointed Mgr Bernardino Bigi as the first bishop of Benghazi.

The Pastoral Ministry in the Apostolic Vicariate of Benghazi

mgr sylvester magro
Pope Francis with Mgr Sylvester Magro OFM

The September Revolution brought great upheavals in the life of the Church. The Italian community was expelled and as a result, the Church in Libya acquired another identity – instead of Italian, it put on an Afro-Asian physiognomy. On March 10 1997, Libya and the Vatican established full diplomatic relations in virtue of which the Holy See appointed Fr Sylvester Magro OFM as the Apostolic Vicar (Bishop) of Benghazi.

Benghazi, with its small cathedral church remains the centre of the pastoral activity of the Vicariate. In each community there were nuns employed as nurses in the health sector. Their chapel serves as a church where the local community gathers regularly to celebrate the liturgy.

The presence and work of the nuns is highly appreciated by the Libyans. By their presence in the hospitals, the nuns witness the presence of Christ and the charity of the Church in this country. The Liturgy in the cathedral of Benghazi used to be celebrated in five languages- English, Italian, Arabic, Polish and Korean. The bishop is assisted by five priests – four of them are Franciscan Friars Minor. The Libyans truly bless the lord for the presence of the church.

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