Kadafi's unlikely advocate

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.

"Why do you want to die under the cross?" Kadafi taunted the rebels in a recent audio screed.

The bishop concedes that Kadafi was slow to respond to the needs of long-neglected eastern Libya, where the rebellion was incubated. Long before the protests erupted in February, Martinelli noted, Libyans yearned for more freedom, greater justice and improved economic opportunities.

Kadafi "was not able to listen to the young people of Benghazi, he was not able to understand them," Martinelli, who served for a dozen years as a priest in Benghazi, said with clear regret, implying that war could have been avoided had the regime put more investment into the east. "Violence became almost an allergy in Benghazi."

The bishop's carefully chosen words generally conform with the government line: Yes, Kadafi has made mistakes, but the regime is now prepared to negotiate a cease-fire and a transition to an elected democracy. Rebel leaders, and allied Western governments, say that they don't buy it and that Kadafi must go after more than four decades in power.

Martinelli, of course, speaks from a precarious perch. Any foreigner criticizing the regime risks expulsion, or worse, in Kadafi's police state. Saying the wrong thing could have catastrophic consequences for an extremely vulnerable flock greatly diminished since the unrest erupted and sent most Christians in flight, some aboard rickety vessels navigating the unpredictable Mediterranean.

In this on-edge capital, weekly Mass is one of his parishioners' few consolations, a singular source of spiritual comfort.

"It gives us courage," said Alex Attisso, a native of Togo who heads a West African choir, its singers resplendent at a recent service in purple robes and tasseled flat caps.

Time and troubles have turned the former spiritual fortress of Libya's colonial masters into something distinct: a retreat for anxious immigrants, among them sub-Saharan African laborers, Philippine healthcare workers and South Asian artisans, all attracted to jobs in oil-rich Libya.

Worshipers don their Sunday best, though the services with heaviest attendance are on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, when most don't have to work. At St. Francis, African ushers dutifully seat participants, hand them printed prayer sheets and remind them to turn off their cellphones before directing them to pews.

On a recent Friday, the bishop was receiving visitors before Mass. There was a Bangladeshi woman seeking to arrange her daughter's baptism. A homeless family from Eritrea requested refuge. A group of Filipinos was conveying tearful farewells.

"They're leaving after 25 years," the bishop said to no one in particular, striking a melancholy tone in these doleful days of leave-takings.

At St. Francis, the disquiet of the times has accentuated the metaphorical dimension of the Bible. One passage, about a blind man who regains his sight, represented "a symbol of this humanity, blinded by war, but not losing hope that the light of reason is regained," Martinelli told a Vatican interviewer.

The church in Libya, he said, is being "purified" anew, enduring the latest transition in a millennial drama that has seen it rise to great heights, disappear from sight and be reborn.

The bishop is confident of his church's continued survival here, he said, even as the fate of this shattered nation remains a question mark.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

McDonnell was recently on assignment in Tripoli.

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