Resurrection in Tripoli: former chorister returns

by
06 October 2011

Paul Grant, raised in Libya, visited Tripoli last month for the first time in 30 years

A LONG piece of tricolour cloth stretches over the nave of the Anglican Church of Christ the King, in the old city of Tripoli, hiding the vaulted ceiling and dome. That was the intention. At the centre of the dome is a painted dove, representing the Holy Spirit.

The building was once the Roman Catholic Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, but it was seized by the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 1969, and closed when he expelled the Italian community. Before it was handed over to the churchless Anglican community 28 years later, it had had a succession of uses. The various occupants did not want to see Christian symbols. The crosses on the dome and the tower, the tallest in the old city, were removed. The dove was simply covered over.

This is not the original Anglican church. That used to stand next to Gaddafi’s now thoroughly blitzed Bab al-Azizia barracks. Christ the King had been a British garrison church. In 1966, it was handed over to the Archbishop in Jerusalem. But it was closed in 1970 by Colonel Gaddafi. Its chaplain, the Revd Basil Pitt, had to leave the country.

BETWEEN 1970 and 2007, the Anglican congregation gathered nomadically, moving from villa to villa as and when neighbours became unhappy with its presence and the growing numbers. Eventually, the Apostolic Vicar of Tripoli, Bishop Giovanni Martinelli, suggested asking the Libyan authorities for the closed church.

It is the oldest in the city. Al­though it dates from 1829, there has been Christian worship on the site since 1680. For almost a century, until the building in the 1920s of the cathedral (now the Gamal Abdel Nasser mosque) in the new Italian city, Sta Maria degli Angeli served as the Roman Catholic pro-cathedral. Inside is even an older history.

In the Maltese chapel, so-called because it was built with stone brought from Malta, the reredos behind the altar includes carved stones that are clearly Roman.

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From the roof of the church, you can see the city’s only remaining synagogue, long closed and falling into decay. It stands in what was the old city’s Jewish quarter. Sta Maria degli Angeli was in the foreigners’ quarter. Across the road is the Greek Orthodox Church of St George, the seat of Metropolitan Theophylaktos Tzoumerkas of Tripoli, but not a cathedral. It was reported as being ransacked in August last year.

After lengthy negotiations, the Libyan authorities agreed to hand over the former RC church.

The last time I visited it was in 1981. It was a dusty book depository. It was the year when my parents had to leave the country. This return to Tripoli, although for work, was a personal pilgrimage. Of the original Christ the King, where I was a choirboy, there was no trace.

THE first time I had been to the Sta Maria del Angeli was as a child in 1957. It was a fully functioning RC church, one of many then. Above the now vanished high altar (of which a few carved stones now stand at the main door) hung an 18th-century painting of the Virgin surrounded by angels. It now hangs in the only RC church, St Francis’s, seat of Bishop Martinelli and home to a commun­ity of Franciscans.

Gaddafi permitted only one church from each denomination in any city, a promise rarely honoured. The Anglican All Saints’, Benghazi, is no more. In many Libyan towns, there are no RC churches, although there are many RC expatriates, and also several religious communities.

Libya’s ties with Christianity are as old as the faith itself: from Cyrene came not only Simon and his sons Alexander and Rufus, but also, if local tradition is correct, St Mark; and, of course, there were those Libyans on the day of Pentecost. Today, there are no indigenous Christians.

None the less, until the 17 February revolution, Christ the King went from strength to strength. There were more than a million and a half expatriates working in the country, mainly Egyptians and sub-Saharan Africans, but also Filipinos, Poles, Koreans, Indians, and many others. Many were Christian. In the RC churches in Benghazi and Tripoli, it was standing room only at the masses in various languages.

It was the same at Christ the King. There were services in English, Arabic, Tamil, Urdu, and Hindi, as well as a Nigerian worship group. On an average Friday (the day off for most people in Libya), the congregation at the main English service numbered about 300. There were three priests: the Revd Hamdy Sedky, from Egypt; the Revd Kosti Ketoy, a Canadian; and the newly appointed Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Vasihar Eben Baskaran, from India. A new Nigerian deacon was also due to arrive from Tunis. All very different from the Christ the King of the 1960s, overwhelmingly white and English-speaking.

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THE uprising provoked a massive exodus. Christ the King suffered accordingly. Two of the clergy left, and many of the laity. The church council, previously 11, has had to be reconstituted as a four-member standing committee. About 60 attend on a Friday, but, by early August, this was down to a couple of dozen.

Fr Hamdy stayed to minister to his diminished community, as did the RC clergy. They all meet regu­larly for prayer and meals. At such a critical time, as the bombs started to fall, he believed that it was vital that there remained a Christian presence. “We are standing in prayer and in solidarity with those who are left here,” he said.

It was not easy, far from home and family and living in a shoebox of a flat. Every day, when the sun de­scended, there was uncertainty. Few people went out at night. Evening services had to be curtailed.

Fr Hamdy may not look like a hero, but he is. Three weeks before Gaddafi was forced out of Tripoli, Fr Hamdy preached a sermon that touched on the revolutions in north Africa. He told his small congrega­tion that the fall of Hosni Mubarak showed that “the weak can over­throw the strong”.

To say as much in Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya was extremely cour­ageous. At that point, just waving the tricolour flag of the revolution was enough to get you shot. Even more courageous was his comment to a journalist from the New York Times afterwards. “Christ is shaking the Middle East,” he said. “Christ is fighting for freedom and justice and democracy. The Church is calling for justice, but Christ is using Muslims as well to bring his justice.”

Yet, after Gaddafi had been ousted, Fr Hamdy refused requests to fly the revolution flag from the church. “It is a place of worship, not a public building,” he said.

For the moment, Fr Hamdy waits to see how events will transpire. He hopes that Fr Vasihar, now looking after St Mark’s, Menouf, in Egypt, will arrive soon, enabling him to return to his family in Egypt.

THE new Libya is not sympathetic to much of sub-Saharan Africa because of the close ties between many countries there and Gaddafi. But the new authorities have said that they will need expatriates to rebuild the country. There may be many more Christians than before in Libya, particularly in Benghazi, centre of the revolution and set to become the new commercial capital.

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There is much for Fr Hamdy to think about and plan. Will the Anglican Church be given back the property seized by Gaddafi, or compensated for it? Will All Saints’, Benghazi, be revived? Will the new authorities hand over the derelict building next door to be developed into a church centre and accom­moda­tion? Will hotels let him advertise church services?

One decision, however, had been made. The cloth over the nave is to come down, to reveal the symbol of the Holy Spirit. At least, it will as soon as there are the funds to repaint the flaking vaulted ceiling.

There is resurrection in Libya. For years, when anyone said “Libya”, the response was always “Gaddafi”. He stole the Libyans’ identity and their humanity. For those of us who had known that there was a different Libya, a country where there are some of the kindest and gentlest people on earth, we would talk about it in the past tense, as one does of a dead person. Now, suddenly, it has come back to life again. There was joy in everyone I met. This resur­rection has been very moving — and, for me, a most spiritual experience.

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