Libya’s Christian community is not the first to face extinction in North Africa

Black smoke billows over the skyline as a fire at the oil depot for the airport rages out of control after being struck in the crossfire of warring militias battling for control of the airfield, in Tripoli, Libya in July (PA)

Libya, along with other countries in North Africa west of Egypt, was once home to a flourishing Christian community. St Augustine was born in Thagaste, now Souk Ahras, in modern Algeria, but once upon a time a flourishing town in a prosperous province on the late Roman Empire. Roman North Africa was the last intact province of the Western Roman Empire, and when it fell to the Vandals in 430, that sounded the death knell of the Roman West, which made several attempts to retake the province, all of which failed. From 430 onwards, the Vandals ruled North Africa, though the Byzantines later established an exarchate based on Carthage in the reign of Justinian, in 533, which lasted until 698, when Carthage was conquered by the Arabs.

With the exception of Egypt, all the Christian communities became extinct in North Africa at some point during the Arab domination, which has continued to this day. No one is quite sure why this was so. After all, in all other lands conquered by the Muslim invaders, some of the original inhabitants retained their faith, and retain it still. But not in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, where there are no indigenous Christians. One theory put forward is that the local churches were overcome not merely by outward pressure, but by inward weakness as well. In other words, they were wracked by heresies, weakened by internal controversies, and thus more easily overcome by the Muslims. Indeed, the history of the Church in North Africa, insofar as it can be known, is a history of squabbling, internal strife and the destabilisation caused by war.

But this does not mean to say that there were no Christians at all in North Africa. From the beginning of the Arab period there were numerous Christians in North Africa, namely the slaves that the Barbary pirates captured and brought to the huge slave markets of Algiers and Tunis. Many of these slaves were unfortunates kidnapped from southern Europe, but some even came from as far away as the British Isles. For example, some Barbary corsairs raided Ireland in 1631.

Typical of the state-sponsored piracy of the age is the career of the man we call Dragut. Dragut is regarded as a loathsome man in Malta even to this day, for his sack of the Citadel of Gozo is not forgotten. On that occasion in 1551 he carried off the entire population of the island into slavery. About 5,000 people were taken off to what is now Libya, to be sold as slaves, and never to see their homeland again. Even today, amid the sunlight and picturesque ruins of the Gozo citadel, their ghosts can still be felt. They were transported from the small and delightful creek of Mgarr ix-Xini (“the landing place of the galleons”).

But Dragut is an interesting case. In the Muslim world he is still regarded as a hero, particularly in Turkey. Some years ago the Turkish government paid for the restoration of his tomb in Tripoli. Moreover, like so many Ottoman characters, Dragut was most probably born of Christian parents, and may well have been kidnapped by Corsairs himself as a child and converted to Islam. Indeed many of the famous men of the Ottoman empire were Christians who were enslaved, but who became Muslim and therefore won their freedom, and often great power and position. This may well have been the route out of misery for those captured by Barbary pirates: conversion, freedom and then an upward career path.

From the 29th century onwards, with the decline of piracy and the rise of trade, North Africa acquired a different Christian community. Many of the Christian settlers were Maltese, part of the very first wave of emigration from Malta. In my youth I used to know one or two people in Malta who were routinely described as “French” but who were in fact people of Maltese descent from Tunisia. Much more recently, in the time of Colonel Gaddafi, many Maltese went to work in Libya.

Libya had, of course, been an Italian colony, as much of the architecture of Tripoli and Benghazi resembles that of lesser known Italian towns built in the 20th century, such as Pomezia. The Italians built a huge cathedral in Tripoli, which is now a mosque. But until fairly recently, the backbone of the Catholic community in Libya consisted of Maltese and other expatriate workers. They are served by Franciscans for the most part, mainly from Malta and Italy.

Right now, with the current descent of Libya into anarchy, the situation of these clergy, and their people, and indeed the entire population of the country, is serious, as this paper has already reported.

A few years ago, Libya was at the forefront of the news cycle, but now it seems almost forgotten. There is every danger, sadly, of it becoming yet another failed state, and most of the expatriates have now left. As for those who are still there, and for their clergy, let us remember them in prayer.


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