Amid the Bloodshed, Libya’s Nuns Continue to Serve Those in Need


(photo: Franciscan Missionaries of Mary India website)

Last year the Register published my article “Uncertain Future for Christians in Libya,” which discussed the historical and current challenges facing the Church’s mission in this important North African country. Following the recent terrorist attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three security personnel in Benghazi, serious questions continue to surface about the safety of the religious working there.

Despite the chaotic fallout from Libya’s revolutionary war, most Catholic religious have remained in the country to provide humanitarian aid. Among the Church’s small local community, there are approximately 100 sisters of various nationalities who work in hospitals and health-care centers throughout the country.

Since the war, considerable improvement has been made in the area of communication. During the conflict, the phones and Internet were down so it was impossible to contact these religious communities by email or phone. Recently, however, I successfully communicated by phone and email with two Libyan communities.

Sister Rosy Xavier, a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary community at the “La Source” convent in Gargaresh, remains optimistic about her order’s future in Libya. Originally from India, Sister Rosy speaks English well and works as a nurse with the handicapped and the elderly. Her community has just four members, but three European sisters from France, Poland and Spain are now visiting to assist them. Some Franciscan fathers also live nearby and serve their community.

Sister Rosy explained that the sisters work in the local hospital and serve freely as Catholic nuns in this predominately Muslim country. When asked about security concerns, Sister Rosy emphatically said, “ At present, we have no problems here. Our neighbors are so good with us.”

Added Sister Rosy, “Even during the war, we did not leave, and we had no troubles at all.”

Regarding the attack on the U.S. Embassy, she said, “The Libyan people are feeling very bad. There is a lot of apology from them to the U.S.” She said that most Libyans assert, “The attacks were not because of us, but because of the terrorists in Benghazi.”

Sister Priscilla Isidore, a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception of Ivrea, is another Catholic religious working in Libya. Originally from Tanzania, she has served here for 16 years and currently works as a nurse.  “Because the Lord is our hope, we will continue with our work among the sick and injured people here and, if necessary, to die with them,” Sister Priscilla affirmed. “That’s our mission. That’s why Christ sent us here.”


Shared Goals

The humanitarian mission of these Catholic sisters corresponds with the late Ambassador Stevens’ initiatives to improve Libya’s medical care. Although the Church and the U.S. government are sometimes at odds over health-care matters, their goals are united in trying to rebuild the Libyan health-care system.

In a statement issued by the Vatican press office in late October, the Holy See assured the Libyan people that it would “continue to offer its witness and selfless service, in particular in the field of charity and health care, and is committed to generously helping to rebuild the country.” The Vatican has also declared its intention to help combat crimes against diplomats.

In U.S. State Department briefings last year, Ambassador Stevens noted that under the deposed Libyan dictator, Gen. Moammar Gadhafi, institutional development was restricted in order to give the regime absolute authority. This has slowly been changing under the greater openness of the new democratically elected government.

Prior to his death, Stevens developed important contacts and collaboration between Western partners and Libyan hospitals. Part of the reason for his stay in Benghazi was to attend a number of  meetings planned for the day after the attack that killed him.

Ethan Chorin, author of Exit the Colonel: The Hidden History of the Libyan Revolution and co-founder of the Avicenna Group, a nonprofit organization working to improve Libya’s medical infrastructure, wrote in his New York Times commentary, “What Libya Lost,” that he was scheduled to meet with Stevens that day.

Chorin detailed the numerous meetings Stevens would have had at the main medical facility in Benghazi — tragically, the same hospital that tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate him. According to Chorin, the meetings were to launch “a collaboration between doctors in Boston and Benghazi, brokered by a non-governmental organization that a Libyan-American and I had organized after the recent revolution.” Their ambition was to begin a network of collaborative projects that would sustain and grant integrative medicine to a largely underserved population.

In October, I contacted Chorin regarding the status of these initiatives in the wake of the terrorist attack. “Our emergency services and health-related community-outreach efforts in Benghazi and Tripoli have slowed, but are still moving forward,” he said. “There's obviously been great concern among the U.S. partners regarding security, but we remain generally optimistic for the mid- to long term, and think the broader governance processes and economic stabilization should be taken into account in evaluating net gains over the past year.”

Although some remain positive about Libya’s future, the impact of the fatal attack on the U.S. Consulate may affect future partnerships and the Church’s continued role there. The struggle for North Africa between fundamentalist and more moderates affects the future of Christians there and in the area’s bordering countries. As part of Africa’s doorway to Europe, Libya will prove very influential in the region as the West and the Church continue to monitor the constructive effects of their missions there.

Perhaps the greatest hope regarding the country’s future, and for the Christians living and working there, is made manifest through the many Libyans who rejected the terrorist attacks. For her part, Sister Rosy describes a population who grieved deeply over the fatal attack on the U.S. Embassy. She cites the demonstrators who took to the streets to protest against the extremist militants, reporting, “They were very sad.” Indeed, some of the demonstrators held signs that read: “Sorry U.S., Ambassador Stevens was a friend to all Libyan people.”

During the civil war that culminated in October 2011, with the fall of Gadhafi and his replacement by a new democratically oriented regime, Pope Benedict XVI prayed optimistically that a new “horizon of peace and harmony” would arise in Libya at the end of the conflict. As the country heads in an unprecedented new direction after suffering for 40 years under a dictatorship, the Catholic sisters serving there continue to represent a concrete expression of Christ’s hope and friendship for Libyans and for all people.

Jennifer Roche writes from Wisconsin.