The origins of Christianity in Libya are very ancient because its foundation is attributed by the majority of historians to the Evangelist Saint Mark. It is also important to note its quick expansion in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, wherein historical documents speak of the first Episcopal Sees in Berenice, Tolemais, Cyrene and Leptis Magna.
During the V century Tripolitania was invaded by the Vandals who destroyed many of its churches. On being sent away by the Byzantines, Libya enjoyed a relative fruitful period of peace that was interrupted by the invasion of the Arabs coming over from Egypt in 642.
From this year onwards began the period of Islamisation of the vast Libyan territory that was completed in Cyrenaica at the beginning of the VIII century. In Tripolitania, notwithstanding the Arab presence and the destruction of many of the christian basilicas, some of whom where transformed into mosques, Christianity survived for another four centuries, amongst small communities of ‘infidels’, that is of Christians who had not yet converted to Islam.
In the period between the XII and the XVII century the existence of Christianity in Libya was limited to a few tentatives of evangelisation by a few heroic missionaries with scarce results and to the brief presence of the Normans, the Genovese, the Spanish and the Knights of Malta, that had militarily occupied Tripoli. In reality, during these years, there was a Christian presence in Tripoli: Christians who had been captured by corsairs and kept in the condition of slavery. Amongst them there were also a small number of Franciscan Friars who tried to help and comfort these prisoners. In 1630, two of these Franciscan missionaries, on being freed received the order from Propaganda Fidei to remain in the city to offer religious assistance to the Catholic slaves imprisoned in the so called baths. A few years later, in 1643, the Franciscan Mission of the Friars Minor was founded in Tripoli, a mission that would be extended to Cyrenaica, even under the Caramanlis, who for more than a century would substitute the Turkish dominion of Libya. In 1818, the Franciscan Mission also established a presence in Cyrenaica. In 1908, the Franciscan Mission in Libya was entrusted to the Lombardy Province of the Friars Minor.
During these years other Religious established their presence, amongst them the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Egypt, the Josephite Fathers in Cyrenaica, the Sisters of Ivrea and the Christian De La Salle Brothers, each building their own chapels. The result of the the Italo-Turkish conflict was what contributed most to the expansion of Catholic cult in Libya.
In 1912, Pope Pius the XI elevated the Apostolic Prefecture of Libya to Apostolic Vicariate, nominating Mons. Ludovico Antonelli as Apostolic Vicar. He was the successor of 56 Apostolic Prefects who animated the Church in Libya since 1641. During that year there were 16, 800 Catholics in Libya and they were in continuous growth. For this reason the Bishop of Tripoli decided to entrust the Mission in Cyrenaica to the Genovese Province of Friars Minor.
In 1919 the Holy See nominated Mons. Giacinto Tonizza as Apostolic Vicar of Libya. During his time 22 new Churches were built in Tripolitania, amongst them the Cathedral of Tripoli dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1928 and the Church of Saint Francis in Dahra. Another 18 Churches were built in Cyrenaica. It was Tonizza who proposed to separated Cyrenaica as an ecclesial entity form Tripoli.
In 1927 the Apostolic Vicariate of Cyrenaica was created. Its first Apostolic Vicar was Mons. Bernardino Bigi. In 1936, because of the added influx of Italians in the region, the Mission in Cyrenaica was divided into two districts: one in Benghazi which remained in the hands of the Friars Minor of Genova and another in Derna, which was entrusted to the Friars Minor of the Marches.
The Cathedral in Benghazi was opened in 1935 and consecrated in 1939.
In 1936, on the death of Mons. Tonizza, Mons. Giacinto Facchinetti was nominated as the Vicar Apostolic of Tripoli.
Between 1934 and 1938 another 8 colonial villages were built in Tripolitania and 4 in the mountainous area of Cyrenaica, each one having its own Church in the village centre or somewhere near the centre. Successively, during the year 1938-39, the Italian Governor Italo Balbo, continued his policy of demographic colonisation by building another 7 colonial villages in Tripolitania and 8 in Cyrenaica. Between 1937 and 1941 another 12 new Churches were built in Tripolitania and the same number in Cyrenaica. The Holy See also decided for pastoral reasons to create another Apostolic Vicariate in Cyrenaica, the Apostolic Vicariate of Derna, which was entrusted to the Salesians. The Friars Minor of the Marches were transferred to Misurata where an Apostolic Prefecture was created.
In 1941 there were 59 Churches and 33 Chapels in Libya. Another three were added successively, bringing the total number to 95 till 1950.
The effects of the World War II were devastating in Cyrenaica, even for religious buildings. Among those destroyed or damaged was the Cathedral in Benghazi. Tripolitania suffered less damage, but even Tripoli had to bear the brunt of bombardments, which damaged the Cathedral and the Church of Saint Mary of the Angels and destroyed the Sanctuary of the Madonna della Guardia.
In 1946 the Salesians were forced to renounce to the Apostolic Vicariate of Derna which was handed back to the Franciscans in Benghazi. In 1950 Mons. Bonifacio Bertoli was nominated as Bishop of Tripoli; Facchinetti had died in Italy where he had gone for medical cure. In 1951 Father Aurelio Ghiglione was nominated as Apostolic Administrator of the Vicariates of Benghazi and Derna, substituting Mons. Candido Moro, who had resigned for health reasons and becoming successively the Apostolic Vicar of Benghazi.
In the early 50’s religious life in Tripoli was still quite intense, so much so that the Church in Marconi Village was restored and in 1952 the procession of Corpus Domini began to take place again.
Libya now had radically changed course. It was directed towards independence and life for the Italian colonisers was becoming difficult, especially in the villages, some of which were abandoned as the villagers went back to Italy.
In 1964, on the death of Mons. Bertoli, Mons. Attilio Previtali was nominated as Apostolic Vicar of Tripoli. In Benghazi Mons. Giustino Pastorino succeeded Mons. Aurelio Ghiglione as Bishop.
The extraction of oil was now attracting new Italian workers and technicians to Libya; notwithstanding, political tensions were exploding in public and damaged Italian properties and Catholic Churches.
On the 1st of September of 1969 a group of army officers led by Muammar El-Gheddafi claim power and found the Libyan-Arab Republic.
There were still around 22,000 Catholic in Libya, the majority of which were Italians and concentrated in Tripoli and some of the colonial villages. The Churches were still abundant, even if some damaged or abandoned, like the Church of St. Anthony the Abbot in Bengashir, of Chapel of Saint Barbara near Tarhuna, the Church in Zliten, closed because of lack of Christians in the city, and others.
On the 21st July 1970 the Revolutionary Council ordered the confiscation of all Italian property and their expulsion. Even the Churches and the different Religious Institutions were confiscated. In September the Bishop of Benghazi was expelled; the Cathedral Church in Tripoli was closed and later turned into a Mosque. All the Churches in Cyrenaica were closed and all missionaries in Benghazi expelled.
After long discussions with the Holy See, the Libyan Government conceded the use for Catholics of the Church of Saint Francis in Tripoli.
This was the most difficult period in the relations between the Catholic Church and the Libyan Government. The Holy See proposed to hold a Seminar on Christian-Islamic Studies to break the ice. This was held in Tripoli in 1976 and its first fruit was the re-opening of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Benghazi.
In 1985, due to health reasons, Mons. Previtali resigned and Bishop Mons. Giovanni Martinelli was nominated. He was born in Breviglieri Village (El Kadra). In those years the Apostolic Vicariate of Tripoli only had two Italian Friars from the Lombardy Province. The others were of different nationalities because of the massive presence of Christians coming from foreign countries to work in Libya. The Mission was now taking on an international character. In 1989 the Vicariate ended its juridical tie with the Lombardy Province of Friars Minor. A new Convention was signed assigning the Friars to the responsibility of the Maltese Franciscan Province.
Diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Libyan-Arab Republic were established. The first Libyan Ambassador to the Holy See was Fouad Kabazi, an ex-pupil of the Christian De La Salle Brothers in Tripoli.
These relations strengthened the Church in its mission and the Franciscan presence which began 350 years ago.
Nowadays there are the two aforementioned Churches open to Catholic cult in Tripoli and in Benghazi. The Maltese Bishop Mons. George Bugeja animates the Catholic church in Libya. He is helped in his mission by priests coming from different countries.
Apostolic Vicars of Libya:
In 1641, the S. Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, nominated P. Pascal COMPTE OFM, as the First Apostolic Prefect of Tripoli. He was succeed by 52 other Apostolic Prefects up till 1913. On February 3rd of that year, Pope Pius X nominated P. Ludovico ANTOMELLI OFM as the first Apostolic Vicar of Libya (1913-19). On February 4th 1927, he Church in Libya was divided into two ecclesiastical jurisdictions: The Apostolic Vicariate of Tripoli and that of Benghazi, with H.G. Mgr. Bernardino BIGI OFM, as its first Apostolic Vicar.
Apostolic Vicars of TRIPOLI
|H.G. Mgr. Ludovico ANTOMELLI||1913-27|
|H.G. Mgr. Giacinto TONIZZA OFM||1927-36|
|H.G. Mgr. Vittorino FACCHINETTI OFM||1936-50|
|H.G. Mgr. Bonifacio BERTOLI OFM||1951-67|
|H.G. Mgr. Attilio PREVITALI OFM||1969-85|
|H.G. Mgr. Giovanni MARTINELLI OFM||1985-2017|
|H.G. Mgr. George Bugeja OFM||2017-|
Apostolic Vicars of BENGHAZI
|H.G. Mgr. Bernardino BIGI OFM||1927-31|
|H.G. Mgr. Candido MORO OFM||1931-51 *|
|H.G. Mgr. Aurelio GHIGLIONE OFM||1951-64|
|H.G. Mgr. Giustino PASTORINO OFM||1965-97|
|H.G. Mgr. Sylvester MAGRO OFM||1997-2016|
|Apostolic Administrator H.G. Mgr. George Bugeja OFM||2016-|
*In 1939, the Holy See divided the Apostolic Vicariate of Benghazi into two Sees: BENGHAZI and DERNA. The Apostolic Vicariate of Derna was entrusted to:
|H.G. Mgr. Giovanni LUCATO SDB||1939-46|
Since 1951, the region of Derna, has been reverted to the jurisdiction of the Apostolic Vicariate of Benghazi. On 20th February 1948, the Holy See erected MISURATA as Apostolic PREFECTURE.
Apostolic Prefects of MISURATA
|Mgr. Bonifacio BERTOLI OFM||1948-51|
|Mgr. Illuminato COLOMBO OFM||1951-57|
|Mgr. Attilio PREVITALI OFM||1958-69|