TRIPOLI: In Libya's Capital, Straight Talk From Christians
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
August 6, 2011
or this week's sermon at the Libyan capital's main Protestant church, the Rev. Hamdy Daoud chose to talk about the trial of Hosni Mubarak.
"You have seen the strong man judged in a bed in Egypt," he told the two dozen immigrant members of his congregation who braved the city's checkpoints to make it to Anglican Mass on Friday. "And so it works that the weak can overthrow the strong," he added. "This is what is happening in our Middle East."
In a city of tapped phone lines and ubiquitous government informers, the weekly Mass at the Church of Christ the King is a rare sanctuary: a place to speak freely with a group of Tripoli residents about the anxious, ever-shifting mood of the city.
"When NATO bombs at night, I hear my neighbors clap and cheer 'bravo,' and in the morning they are with the leader," a leading parishioner said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. "People are very, very down, and they are depending entirely on NATO."
Over a meal of homemade Indian food laid out after Mass, parishioners said Libya's situation was growing only more "obscure," as one put it. There were reports that several armed rebels from the Tripoli neighborhood of Hay al Andalus were killed in an attack on top Qaddafi officials. (Rumors in the rebel capital of Benghazi described the same attack as a great victory.)
Some parishioners said they were confused by reports that a rebel faction had assassinated their top military commander, Gen. Addul Fatah Younes, Colonel Qaddafi's former interior minister and a member of the rebels' provisional government, the National Transitional Council. "What is happening in the National Transitional Council?" a parishioner asked. "Are they fighting with themselves?"
One member said he believed that Colonel Qaddafi had less support. Another said he believed that many people, including himself, had been moved to sympathize with Colonel Qaddafi because of state television reports on NATO bombs killing children and other civilians.
But a hospital worker from nearby Zawiyah, which rebels held for weeks before state forces crushed them, said hundreds of fighters were hiding and waiting for a chance to re-emerge. "No one can open his mouth," he said. "So many are in jail."
Outside, heaps of garbage rot uncollected in the capital's once spotless streets. Residents said the government seemed to lack the manpower to pick up the trash. But they insisted that the security was still tight, despite the dwindling number of visible uniforms. "There are a lot of security people in the streets, but they dress like you," a congregant said. "So many people are armed, it is difficult to tell who is and who isn't."
The strains on the city have changed the luxurious hotel housing foreign journalists as well. Rixos, the upscale Turkish company that previously operated the hotel, has sold its stake to the more modest Swiss Inn chain. And to avoid airstrikes or assassinations, some Qaddafi government officials have moved into the hotel with their families. A plastic playground has sprouted on the lawn, and the screams of small children echo in the hotel's long marble lobby. "God, Muammar and Libya, that's all," one young girl likes to chant.
But the conflict has brought more glamorous incongruities as well. A group of Italian models has spent a week in the hotel on a mission of solidarity. They got to know Colonel Qaddafi as guests in his private tent while he was still at the height of his power.
"We came here to Libya, me and my friends, when everything was normal and fine and we met people, very nice people," Clio Evans, who identified herself as an actress, told a journalist writing for the Fox News Channel's Web site. "We made friendships in this country, and we want to demonstrate that we are still next to these people in this difficult moment."
Aside from such European visitors, there are few Christians in Muslim Libya. Almost all are immigrants from Asia or Africa, and the few churches typically hold services on Friday mornings to fit in with the Muslim workweek. The Anglican congregation of the Church of Christ the King sits in plain wooden chairs in a 300-year-old white stone building in the Old City with a square steeple, bare white walls and peeling paint. The congregation typically numbered about 250, members said, before the revolt and crackdown. Some who stayed in Tripoli skip church because they are afraid of harassment at checkpoints, while the acute gas shortage - cars can wait in lines for more than a week to fill up - keeps others at home.
The Qaddafi government has never knowingly allowed foreign journalists to attend the Anglican church. It prefers to direct visitors to the city's other main church, a Roman Catholic congregation, which is also composed mainly of immigrants from other African countries. Bishop Giovanni Martinelli, in Tripoli for decades, appears to have made his peace with the Libyan leader.
Bishop Martinelli has sometimes parroted uncorroborated state television reports about civilian casualties, and he has condemned NATO's bombing as immoral and pointless. A few weeks ago, he told a group of foreign journalists that he thought Colonel Qaddafi might find a place in heaven. "Why not?" he said, according to journalists present.
Asked about his sermon, Father Daoud, an Egyptian trained in Britain, offered his own views. "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."
"For the leader of this nation, Muammar Qaddafi, and for the leaders of all nations," he said in closing his sermon, "let us pray."
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