TRIPOLI, Libya — Opposition forces are closing in on deposed Libyan dictator Col. Moammar Gadhafi, which would bring to an end the civil war that has wreaked havoc in the oil-rich North African country for the last six months.

Many hope that the Transitional National Council, the provisional government set to direct the transition from Gaddafi, will create better relations with the west. The early signs are mixed. Most mainstream media report that Libyans are free to express opinions without fear for the first time in nearly half a century.

However, there is concern whether some Islamic militants in the new regime might want to restrict or even end religious freedom. Perhaps the most vulnerable in this new era will be the minority Christian population.

Although Libya is 97% Muslim, there are two main Catholic churches in Tripoli and Benghazi. Currently, just 25 priests serve the approximate 80,000 Roman Catholics there.

There are also roughly 100 Catholic nuns of various nationalities who work in hospitals and health centers throughout the country.

Under the Gaddafi regime, the Catholic Church functioned more or less freely without much government interference. During that time, there had been relatively good relations between Christians and Muslims. Past signs of peaceful co-existence are indicated by the number of successful interfaith dialogue meetings mentioned on the official Libyan Roman Catholic website

However, there had been some disruptions. In 2006, a small group of Muslim fundamentalist ransacked the Franciscan Church of the Immaculate Conception and adjacent friary. The Minister General of the Franciscan Order, Father Jose Rodriguez Carballo cited their order’s vocation to pacific presence in the Muslim world. “It goes back to the year 1219, when St. Francis met the Sultan of Egypt Melek-el-Kamel,” he said.

The communities continued despite serious restrictions such as the prohibitions for Christians to proselytize Muslims, and the necessary conversion to Islam should a Christian wish to marry a Muslim.

Most Catholics in Libya are either expatriates or foreign workers coming from Italy, Malta, the Philippines or other African nations. Before WWII, Italy colonized Libya, which increased the number of Roman Catholics living there.

The large numbers of Maltese Catholics, mostly foreign workers, come from nearby the island of Malta, which represents the closest EU country to Libya.

Both Italy and Malta have a vested interest in a stable and democratic Libya. A more democratic and prosperous Libya might help to stem the serious immigration crisis now touching the shores of both countries and throughout Europe.

Regarding the on-going conflict, Tripoli Bishop Giovanni Martinelli considers “the historical moment we are living in Libya today is full of suffering and dying people. … We, Christians in Libya, are Christ’s small flock. … Our very presence, our service still rendered in various Libyan institutions, our friendship in this trying time are all a powerful witness that the Church is serving the Libyan people in the Spirit of God, and a hope that Libya, and the Church in Libya, may soon be reborn out of the experience of suffering.”

Although many Christian lay people fled as the conflict unfolded, many religious remained behind to assist people in need. About their service, the Benghazi Bishop Sylvester Carmel Magro commented, “Ours has been a gesture of love for the Lord, for His Church, for the suffering. This witness has been an eloquent sign, which everyone, the faithful Christians and our Muslim friends, fully understood and widely appreciated. Many people, not only appreciated our witness, but have also been touched by our gesture of selfless love, in such turbulent times.”

Both bishops belong to the Order of Friars Minor.

At present, media reports suggest that most religious are mostly confined to their monasteries due to on-going fighting. Three Franciscan friars who live in Tripoli are thought to be safe, having survived heavy gunfire and bombings.

Although other priests and nuns are reported to be free to move about in the rebel-controlled areas of the country, at press time, Libya’s phone and internet service is down so no direct contact was possible with any of these communities.

During the harrowing days of some of the bloodiest fighting when the cities were besieged with gunfire, many of the religious attended to the wounded. Although there are shortages in water, electricity, antibiotics, bandages and anesthetics, the sisters still worked with the injured.

Libyan Bishop Magro reported, “We have around 30 nuns who are serving as nurses in the hospital, and their presence is needed in a time where there are a lot of wounded people.” He added that he and the Deputy Foreign Minister of the Benghazi Transitional National Council had met, and he was promised full support of the Church’s mission in Libya, which includes hospital service.

According to Bishop Magro, “The council recognizes the value of the Church, and they know first-hand that the Church’s contribution in Libya is practical. They respect our religion, and we hope that when things work out we can continue working and keeping our presence as before.”

Since the first century after Christ, Christianity has had a presence in Libya. Simon of Cyrene, who helped to carry Jesus’ cross came from Libya’s ancient coastal city Cyrene in the east.

Many artifacts important to early Christianity, but also Western culture are also at potential risk. The remnants of several Christian basilicas are part of the five UNESCO World Heritage sites in Libya that were identified as “off-limits” before the war.

At the beginning of the NATO bombing campaign UNESCO director general Irina Bokova insisted upon the protection of this cultural heritage. Bokova stated that these sites “bear witness to the … ancestors of the people of Libya, and constitute a precious legacy.”

Jennifer Roche writes from Pennsylvania.