As Holy See Fixes Ties with Libya, United States Signals Dismay

THE VATICAN's decision in mid-March to establish diplomatic relations with Libya was strongly discouraged by the U.S. government. As late as 1992, the Vatican was at serious odds with Libya over its apparent support for terrorism, including the 1986 bombing of a discotheque in East Berlin and its alleged role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which left 270 people dead.

But in 1993 the Vatican opposed U.S. sanctions against Libya following the bombing of the Pan Am flight. Later reports indicated that there was not sufficient evidence to hold Libya responsible for the act. Libya has said it wants the matter handled by the International Court of Justice, a U.N. body based at The Hague, Netherlands. But U.S. officials want to try the two Libyans identified as possible suspects in the United States.

In any case, the Vatican rarely supports embargoes because of the toll they take on a country's civilian population. In a Vatican Radio interview following the recent establishment of ties, Bishop Giovanni Martinelli, Libya's highest ranking prelate said: “As a pastor, I see mainly the poor, the sick, those who have urgent need of medical care and people who have to make long trips to obtain treatment. This human aspect (of the embargo) is striking.”

Still, critics of the new relationship are perturbed at what they see as the Holy See's dealing with a known international terrorist in the person of Moammar Gadhafi, Libya's president. But Church officials view it as an opportunity to bring a country that has long been a pariah back into the community of nations.

The new Vatican nuncio to Libya is Archbishop Sebastian Laboa. Archbishop Laboa was previously the Vatican's diplomatic representative in Panama and as well was responsible for giving shelter to General Manuel Noriega in the embassy compound after the United States invaded Panama in 1989. Archbishop Laboa's action at the time strained diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the United States, but he ultimately convinced Noriega to turn himself over to U.S. military authorities in 1990.

The archbishop later became the apostolic delegate to Libya, and was based in Malta. An apostolic delegate is accredited only to the bishops of a country. Now Archbishop Laboa has been named apostolic nuncio, which also affords him diplomatic status. In an interview with the Rome newspaper Il Messaggero, the prelate suggested that U.S. opposition to the Vatican-Libya ties would quickly fade. The prelate also dismissed the notion that the Vatican was dealing with a known terrorist.

“If one wanted to consider only the attacks against life, the Holy See could not have diplomatic relations with the United States either. It would be enough to cite the American investments in family planning in the Third World, where support is given to policies favoring abortion.”

Following the announcement of the formalized relations between the Vatican and Libya, the Registerspoke with Archbishop Paolo Giglio, the apostolic nuncio in Egypt. The archbishop is well positioned to follow the developing relations between the Vatican and Libya because Egypt and Libya are neighbors and maintain good relations. Both Archbishop Laboa and Archbishop Giglio are from Malta, a small island in the Mediterranean which traditionally maintains good relations with Libya.

Archbishop Giglio was not surprised by the Vatican's move to establish ties with Libya. He told the Register that the decision to repair the relationship with Libya goes back to 1994 when Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the second-ranking member in the Vatican's Secretariat of State, visited Libya and agreed to establish a commission with people representing the country's government and the Vatican to study how to improve relations.

Said Archbishop Giglio: “[At the conclusion of the study] the Holy Father decided to establish these diplomatic relations. It means in my opinion that the Holy See is satisfied with the situation of the Church in Libya today. There is no persecution and there are no problems between the Church authorities in Libya and the government.”

The Catholic Church has two apostolic vicariates in Libya. Many members of a large colony of Italian Catholics left after a junta led by Gadhafi wrested control of the country in a coup d'etat in 1969. Today there are some 30,000 Catholics in the vicarate of Tripoli and 10,000 more in Benghazi. Most are expatriates—about 20,000 of them Filipinos—working in Libya.

Diplomatic relations are typically established if a local Church can benefit from it. “We see it as a means of talking with the local authorities,” said Archbishop Giglio. “This is important if, for example, the government wants to close a school, a church, a hospital or something else which belongs to the Church. If the Holy See has a person on the spot who can discuss a situation, it always benefits the local Church. In the second place, the Vatican understands having diplomatic relations with other nations is a means to foster peace. If there is no relationship, there is no dialogue.”

Some observers in the United States believe that a warmer Libya-Vatican relationship will hurt U.S. efforts to isolate Gadhafi. But others say it could give the Vatican a stronger voice in encouraging the leader to be more moderate.

‘If one wanted to consider only the attacks against life, the Holy See could not have diplomatic relations with the United States either. It would be enough to cite the American investments in family planning in the Third World, where support is given to policies favoring abortion.’

Archbishop Giglio said the Vatican's primary motivation is helping the minority Catholic population in Libya. “The Church has always been represented in North Africa,” Archbishop Giglio said. “In the early history of North Africa we had hundreds of bishops and hundreds of dioceses with many Catholics. Now we are few.”

In general, the Church in Libya enjoys religious freedom. In establishing official relations with the country, the Vatican now has ties with all the states in North Africa. It also maintains diplomatic relations with Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. The Vatican ambassador in Iraq is also responsible for Kuwait. Presently, the Vatican has no diplomatic relations with the states in the Arab peninsula. In Saudi Arabia there is currently not even an apostolic delegate.

Despite the establishment of diplomatic relations, the Vatican is not blind to Libya's past transgressions. Voices to the contrary notwithstanding, the Holy See seems to believe reaching out to the country and its erratic leader is the best way to go.

Cornelis Hulsman is based in Cairo. CNS contributed to this report.