.January 22, 2015
The Bishop of Benghazi, Celeste Almagro, may be the last remaining Christian in his congregation left in Benghazi. Father Almagro says he is staying in Libya even though all the other nuns and other priests have left the country. There was a sizable quantity of Christian immigrants living in Libya, around 17,000 were Filipinos, and they lived along side the locals without any trouble. This all changed with the uprising against Muammar Gadaffi in 2011. Since the fall of Gadaffi’s government, the country has spiraled out of control, with radical Islamist groups growing in strength and making the country more dangerous for all religious minorities. Our contributor interviewed the bishop who was at the time sheltering in an unknown location for his own safety.
“I am bishop Celeste Almagro from Malta and I have been in Libya already for 27 years. It is a long time since I came as a priest in Tripoli. At that time, there were many Filipinos, there were about 17,000 so I came as an English speaking priest in order to help with the prayers of the church, these people who are Christian. And as I said I spent as parish priest and vicar of the bishop 9 years in Tripoli. We were going practically everywhere except Brega on the east and Ra’s lanuf in the east in order to conduct the prayers according to our way. Then in 1997, when the country, when Libya established diplomatic relations with the Vatican, I was appointed Bishop of Benghazi of this area, because the area is very vast, beginning from Brega it goes up to Tubruq, so it could not be administrated by Tripoli, it was already too far.
“So I came here in 1997, 17 years ago almost, and we took the permits necessary, we renovated the church; we painted, made it more welcoming because it needed a good refurbishing. Also the Catholic community was very numerous up until a few years ago. We had a lot to do. We were always going somewhere. There were also the sisters perhaps you know that there were sisters in the hospital of Jamahiriya, there were Polish sisters here in the children’s hospital, there were sisters in Tubruq, sisters in Derna, in Al Bayda and also in Al Marj. So we had a lot of travelling and coming and going back at the same time. In Al Bayda and Derna and Tubruq we had a priest resident with the “sorellas” (sisters) they call them. So we were organizing this way very much in demand, travelling and travelling without stop. We used to go to Brega by the company plane to the region. Now we have come to this state when the sorellas (sisters) are no more because many of them were over aged, but others were recalled because they were afraid by their superiors, so we have remained one priest with me and another one in Al Bayda.
“And here we are after this waiting for priests to return, because even in the normal life of the people, there are time for prayer, their regular attendance has been distributed so they need also the spiritual support of their religion which is Christian for us. And it is our daily and constant prayer and wish for peace to return. Now we do not have more bombings like before, hope has increased. Inshallah it will be not long before calm and security will be the order of the day and we will be able to return to our church in Benghazi because we had to leave very urgently on 4th November, taking nothing with us because there was no time, I did not know what was happening, maybe the soldiers were approaching. So took what we had about us, the necessary things and off we went with the hope of returning within three days. And we are still here, now it is 22nd of January and we are still here in this place out of normal residence which is a handicap also for those people because the people all come from different hospitals for the prayer in Servia Moreno and Omerta Gatap and we are not there. So it is a painful for them and for us, that is why in our prayer meetings, the priority is our prayer for peace, for the benefit of the country, for the benefit of the citizens, of the families and for the benefits also for us because we are living like a family in our own way.
“We have remained here because we had a great pressure from our families to return because they were worried about us, our families especially, and also from our embassy but we preferred to remain with the people and also with those when we had the nuns, they did not go immediately but remained as long as they could to be with the people with the war three years ago. Three years ago when there was the war, there were massive repatriation plans, there was a ship one time took 1,400 Filipinas, others went by air to their country, but we remained here to be with the people, with your people, with the sisters helping them as nurses and giving witness to our love and our dedication to the country also, which was our country because we are living here. And this again happened now and we remained again, we did not fly away, many have been repatriated, because the families were terrified because of the war, and it is reasonable, so many Filipinos and Africans also, because we have many Africans, left but also there are some who remained also for the benefit of the country to help in the hospitals because it is important that they should stay. Hoping as we do to rejoice when finally everything will be settled as I said for the benefit of the country, for the benefit of the families, for the benefits of us all.” (08:56)
(08:57) “I remember when the sisters were told by their superiors that they had to return, they wept because some of them were over 45 years here, they came when they were very young, especially the Italian ones so it was heart breaking for them to leave the hospital especially Jamahiriya here, children and the other hospitals in Al Bayda, Al Marj and Tubruq, because they felt their country is here for a lifetime. So as a conclusion, I would like to say how much we are also enduring with the people, the disadvantages brought by war, and it is our prayer for the country, for the people, among who we have so many friends also, especially the neighbours and those who know us, we are like a family, and inspire and pray and hope for peace so that will be our great relief from the tragedies of war because war is always a tragedy, and I hope it is not far, the night is dark but the sun will rise God willing. Thank you very much.”