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Maltese bishop: ‘I will still be going back to Tripoli’

Mgr George Bugeja baptising a member of his community.

Mgr George Bugeja baptising a member of his community.

Mgr George Bugeja, coadjutor bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Tripoli, speaks to Simonne Pace from his home town of Xagħra about the dire situation in Libya and his commitment to his community there.

Caught in the line of fire in Libya, Mgr George Bugeja has experienced first hand the fear and apprehension that come with war in a country where peace has not reigned since Muammar Gaddafi’s death in 2011.

Mgr Bugeja, who is a member of the Franciscan order, was appointed coadjutor bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Tripoli by Pope Francis in 2015 and took office in October of that year.

“I had an air ticket to visit Malta on August 30 but since the airport closed due to the fighting going on, the flight was cancelled and it was impossible to travel,” he tells the Times of Malta.

“I was given the opportunity to travel from Misurata but decided to stay on until the main airport opened and flights to Malta by Medavia resumed, hoping the fighting would stop and there would be some form of stability and security in Tripoli.”

 He eventually managed to catch a flight to Malta on September 11.

“As a bishop I am not only responsible for my own safekeeping but also for that of the community under my care. With the opening of Tripoli airport and the agreement of the militias under the auspices of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) for the fighting to end, I was sure there would be a period of calm in the city. Unfortunately, shelling started again two days after my arrival in Malta. However, evacuation was never on my mind.”

Mgr Bugeja, who is in charge of the Catholic community in Tripoli, which numbers around 6,000 non-Libyans, said hearing the sounds of the shelling, especially during night-time, creates tension.

“I was told not to venture out of our premises during the days of the conflict. My thoughts were, and are always, that nobody gets killed or hurt, which is unfortunately what happens in such situations. I pray so those responsible understand that, in moments like these, dialogue and trying to understand each other through compromise are the best solutions. Shooting and killing bring only grief, sadness and more hatred.”

There are times when things get very complicated. The Libyans themselves must find a solution for their own country

However, Mgr Bugeja says the Catholic community in Tripoli is safe, and even though they face some minor difficulties, there is nothing that really preoccupies him. A Franciscan friar is taking care of the church and the Christian community, while another two are based at the Vicariate of Benghazi.

“I have always been assured that, if and when needed, we would be helped by the Libyan security services, who I greatly thank, as well as the Maltese security services and the Gendarmeria Vaticana, who are also in contact with us,” says the bishop, who was nominated Apostolic Administrator for the Catholic Vicariate of Benghazi in 2016 and Vicar Apostolic of the Catholic Vicariate of Tripoli, after the resignation of Bishop Giovanni Martinelli, OFM, in 2017.

Mgr Bugeja was appointed coadjutor bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Tripoli by Pope Francis in 2015. Photo: Osservatore RomanoMgr Bugeja was appointed coadjutor bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Tripoli by Pope Francis in 2015. Photo: Osservatore Romano

Mgr Bugeja’s posting in Libya was a decision taken by Pope Francis.

“It has not been easy, but with God’s help and that of many people we have managed to do what is needed,” he says.

“There are times when things get very complicated. I believe that the Libyans themselves must find a solution for their own country. There is the prospect of a future general election for a stable government for the whole nation.

“The Libyans have been preparing for it, as we all know, not without difficulties. The international community can help by providing them with the means to reach a final settlement for peace and prosperity. I think the UNSMIL is working for this to be achieved. Other actions by any foreign country not coordinated with the UNSMIL should be avoided.”

Mgr Bugeja celebrates Sunday liturgy every Friday, considered to be the first day of the week in Libya. The community is made up of Catholics and other Christian denominations. There are two big communities – Filippino workers, mostly nurses, and people from other African countries, mostly Nigeria. There is also a small community living within the Vicariate of Benghazi, where the church was completely destroyed during the war. A small chapel is now being used until a solution is found.

“In Tripoli we have three Eucharistic celebrations in English: one for the Filippino and Indian workers; another for people from African countries, as well as from Pakistan and Bangladesh; and an afternoon Mass for those who cannot attend in the morning,” Mgr Bugeja explains.

The Church in Tripoli also caters for the regular teaching of catechism for children and adults being prepared for the Sacraments and runs a small Caritas office, through which the community may ask for help from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and from where “we do our best to help people without making any distinction”.

The community also benefits from the presence of the Missionary Sisters of Charity (Mother Teresa), who work as volunteers in two government institutions helping people with mental health problems.

The eldest of five brothers, Mgr Bugeja says it’s always a wonderful experience to be reunited with his family and loved ones.

“More so for them, because they are ever so worried about me when they hear news about fighting in Libya,” says the bishop, who hopes to return to Libya early next month. But is it safe to return?

“We will see but I will still be going. Unless the Holy Father decides otherwise, my place and responsibility is there with my community.”

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