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Kadafi's unlikely advocate

Tripoli's Catholic bishop criticizes NATO bombings as futile and immoral.

July 03, 2011|Patrick J. McDonnell

TRIPOLI, LIBYA — For more than a quarter of a century, the soft-spoken padre with the almost beatific glow and more-than-passing resemblance to Pope John Paul II has presided over the soothing confines of St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church here.

As the bishop of Tripoli, Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli has quietly counseled the capital's small Roman Catholic community from the stately, whitewashed edifice built at the height of Italian colonial rule under Benito Mussolini, its 100-foot bell tower soaring into a skyline bristling with minarets.

But since Western bombs began raining down on Moammar Kadafi's Libya, Martinelli, 69, has become an unlikely source of international controversy.

His persistent criticism of the NATO-led campaign has led some to call him a Kadafi appeaser, and to suggest he would be better off sticking to spiritual matters.

The Libyan-born Martinelli, the son of Italian colonizers, rejects the notion that he should mute his voice, using his knowledge of both this North African nation and the West to press his argument.

"Kadafi is a Bedouin: You can't change his mind by bombing him. You cannot crush the Bedouin," Martinelli declared recently in the shaded patio of a five-star Tripoli hotel as thundering detonations shook the capital, seeming to accentuate his point.

"He is a proud man. Talk to the Bedouin. There is a kind of sublimity to the Bedouin, the man of the desert," he said, slipping from English into his native Italian.

The bishop, who has met Kadafi and acknowledges "respect" for the leader, positions himself as an advocate of peace and negotiation.

"Bombing is always an immoral act," he told the official Vatican news agency, Fides. "I respect the United Nations. I respect NATO, but I must also declare that war is immoral. If there are violations of human rights, I cannot use the same method to stop them."

Pope Benedict XVI has called for dialogue and diplomacy to end the Libyan conflict. But the Holy See's longtime apostolic vicar in Tripoli has gone a lot further, apparently with the Vatican's blessing.

The bishop is in daily contact with Catholic agencies in Europe, and he invariably sends the same message: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's bombing will lead to more civilian deaths and will only harden the regime's resolve.

While unequivocally condemning the Western bombardment, Martinelli deflected questions about the regime's attacks against civilians. He said he abhors all violence, shifting the topic to what he calls Kadafi's positive accomplishments: a social welfare state, relative equality for women and, most pointedly, liberty of worship in this overwhelmingly Muslim country.

The revolution of 1969, led by a then-obscure army lieutenant named Kadafi, led to the expulsion of most of the remaining Italians and a shuttering of the churches, long a symbol of Italy's brutal 20th century colonization. The cathedral in the rebel-held city of Benghazi, with its signature dual cupolas rising from the harbor front, is enmeshed in scaffolding and in acute disrepair. Other churches have been converted to gyms and meeting halls, and in at least one case a cafe.

But Kadafi, a secular revolutionary, soon allowed Christians to practice, returning St. Francis and a downtown Benghazi church on a street still known as Via Torino. The state strictly forbids proselytism and limits charitable activities to church premises, but Catholic nuns staff hospitals and centers for the disabled, orphans and the elderly. John Paul even resumed diplomatic relations with Tripoli at a time when the regime was an international pariah because of Kadafi's ties to terrorism.

"Kadafi gave us freedom of the church," Bishop Martinelli said, citing other examples in the Arab world where Christians face severe restrictions and, in the case of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, virtual pogroms. "Look at Iraq," he said. "They destroyed Saddam Hussein, but it has been very difficult to arrange life since."

It is not lost on ecclesiastical authorities observing the still-unfolding "Arab Spring" that secular autocrats in the region -- Hussein, the Assad dynasty in Syria, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt -- have been tolerant of Christian minorities.

Born during World War II to Italian farmers southeast of Tripoli, Martinelli returned to Italy as a youth and was ordained a Franciscan priest in Salerno in 1967. He was sent back to the Maghreb to guide a remnant Italian population in a region where the early church had once flourished, begetting one of Catholicism's intellectual luminaries, St. Augustine of Hippo, a native of what is now Algeria.

Arab invasions obliterated Christianity in Libya for centuries, until Italian traders and colonizers brought back the faith in limited fashion.

Since the bombing began, Kadafi has sought to invoke an earlier epoch of Christian-Muslim conflict, framing the war as an implausible alliance of "crusader" aggressors and Al Qaeda fanatics.

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