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THE MIDEAST

Libya's Civil War Shrinks Christian Communities

With most of his flock having fled Libya's violence, Tripoli's Roman Catholic bishop now focuses on keeping the power struggle between Moammar Gadhafi and anti-government rebels out of his church.

But it's getting harder.

After a recent Mass, several Muslim women, all Gadhafi supporters, followed Bishop Giovanni Martinelli into the vestry, tearfully demanding that he call the Vatican to get the pope to halt NATO airstrikes.

Some of his parishioners, especially African migrant workers, have been using his St. Francis Church as a sanctuary, saying they dread going into the streets because they are frequently stopped and harassed by Gadhafi's security forces.

The war has hit hard Christian communities in Tripoli, which include African migrant laborers, Filipino health care workers and European expatriates, among them foreign women married to Libyan men. Libya is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, and missionary activity is not allowed, though clergy say the regime has respected Christians' freedom of worship.

Martinelli and the head of the five other churches in Tripoli — all led by foreign clergy with congregations made up almost entirely of foreigners — have staked out a cautious middle ground in the conflict that has split Libya into a Gadhafi-controlled west and a rebel-run east.

In a statement issued just before the start of Holy Week, which began with Palm Sunday, the Tripoli churches called for an immediate cease-fire and said dialogue is the only way to end the two-month-old crisis.

Attempts to dislodge Gadhafi by force will only make him more determined to hang on, said Martinelli, an Italian who came to Libya just a year after Gadhafi seized power in 1969.

"He is a Bedouin, he is very strong," the bishop said, tapping his forehead to illustrate hard-headedness.

Martinelli said his flock of 100,000 in the greater Tripoli area has dwindled to about 5,000. The Greek Orthodox community has shrunk from around 1,000 to fewer than a dozen. The Union Church is down from 1,200 to 250 parishioners.

Some of those who stayed, especially Africans who lack proper papers, said they rarely leave their homes these days because Tripoli is full of checkpoints, part of the clampdown by Gadhafi's forces to prevent anti-government protests.

Lucky John, 30, a Nigerian parishioner at St. Francis, said the forces often stop migrants and check their passports and the sim cards on their mobile phones.

John, who worked as a driver for a Turkish construction company until the uprising began on Feb. 15, said many of his friends have left Libya. "I stay by the faith of the almighty God," he said, speaking after Mass Friday. "Maybe this will be solved."

Treading carefully, Martinelli did not mention Libya's conflict in his sermon, but asked the congregation to pray for those in Benghazi, Misrata and Nalut, three rebel cities.

After the service, Martinelli received unusual visitors — two delegations of Muslim women, recognizable as Gadhafi supporters by their green scarves and lapel pins.

In their tearful pleas for help from the church, the women reiterated standard government claims aimed at discrediting opponents — that NATO airstrikes have caused widespread suffering among civilians and that rebels in the besieged city of Misrata are dominated by al-Qaida.

"They all have beards," one woman said of the fighters, to back up her claim. The woman said she is from Misrata.

He listened patiently to the women and told them he'd make some calls to Europe, but remained largely noncommittal.

"Many times I try to tell our people that the Pope cannot solve this," he said after the women had left.

Martinelli said it was the first time he's had such a visit by Muslim women, whose appearance coincided with an Associated Press trip to the church, in the company of government minders who waited in the parking lot outside. The Libyan regime has gone to great lengths to stage shows of support for Gadhafi for the benefit of foreign reporters who are being closely watched by the minders.

The official escorts did not permit an AP photographer to take his camera along to the church.

Rev. Edward Blasu, of the Union Church, another denomination, said he has canceled all evening activities in an attempt to keep his congregants — mostly African workers — safe.

In Tripoli's Greek Orthodox Church, all but a dozen parishioners have left. The main weekly service used to draw as many as 1,000 worshippers, mainly Greeks, Russians and Ukrainians.

The head of the congregation, Metropolitan Theofylaktos, will stay in Tripoli out of a sense of obligation, said Sophia Sofopoulou, a leading member of Tripoli's 300-strong Greek community.

Martinelli said he doesn't think or worry too much about whether the church will survive the crisis in Libya.

"The church is not my institution," he said. "It is from God. I am just here in the name of God."