Only one day after colonel Mu’ammar Qaddafi had vowed publicly to fight ‘terrorism’ and destroy all traces of religion in his country’s politics, the Vatican announced the establishment of ambassadorial-level diplomatic relations with Libya. The announcement, which came on March 9 - allegedly in the face of strong US lobbying - cited ‘positive results’ in Libya in the area of religious freedom.
Pope John Paul II the same day appointed a papal ambassador to Tripoli and a papal representative to be based at Benghazi, north east Libya.
A Vatican spokesman said that the ‘Holy See wished to acknowledge, through the diplomatic ties, the positive results registered in the two areas of freedom and religion, thanks to the cooperation of the Libyan authorities.’ The establishment, in 1994, of a joint committee for freedom of belief, and the exchange of high-level delegations all contributed to the improvement of mutual relations, he said.
‘Through the appointment of a papal ambassador to Tripoli and a representative at Benghazi, we are able to confirm that we have laid down the basis for the continued development of friendship and cooperation between Christians and Muslims in Libya,’ he added. ‘As far as the Vatican is concerned, the diplomatic relations are first and foremost a means of advancing the interests of the local church... and the spiritual needs of the 50,000 Catholics in Libya.’
According to the spokesman, the Vatican also hopes that the normalization of relations with Libya will enable it to participate in the promotion of international dialogue. ‘It is very important that the Southern Mediterranean becomes more and more a region of peace, stability and security,’ he said - confirming that the foreign policies of the Vatican and the former European rulers of the region have always been identical.
Only a day before the Vatican’s announcement, colonel Qaddafi launched a ferocious attack on Islamic activism as well as the role of religion in politics. And the following day, the General People’s Congress (GPC), the Libyan parliament, passed a law prescribing a draconian set of collective punishments for groups and individuals, including their families, carrying out ‘destructive political, tribal or religious activities.’
Qaddafi told an Italian television station on March 8, during an interview filmed in a tent in the Libyan desert, that ‘terrorism must finally be removed from the field of politics’ - adding that ‘terrorism may be classed (sic) as politics but it is detestable and cowardly politics.’
The colonel, who is often accused of promoting international terrorism by the west, emphasized his country’s ‘desire to eradicate terrorism from the field of politics’ - claiming that Libya had always declared its opposition to this outrage and condemned it.
Qaddafi - who recently launched a programme of architectural purge designed to eliminate all traces of the country’s colonial (Italian) past - said that relations with Italy were ‘excellent and could be even better.’ With the Vatican we ‘maintain excellent relations and mutual respect,’ he added.
Italy was quick to return the compliment of the ‘Brother Leader of the Revolution.’ Foreign minister Lamberto Dini said Libya had recently adopted a ‘more constructive position’ and begun to distance itself from ‘international terrorism’ - a euphemism the west often uses to refer to the global Islamic movement.
The Libyan leader’s architectural purge - which began on February 6 to demolish old buildings from the Italian period in both Tripoli and Benghazi - could not have offended the Italians or the Vatican. After all, it was not directed against them, and the only building of significance spared by the bulldozers was the former cathedral in Benghazi.
Again, neither Rome nor the vatican was perturbed by the draconian legislation passed by the GPC on March 9. Neither has so far commented on it, let alone condemn it. The reason must surely be that it is directed mainly against Islamic activists, who have recently emerged from obscurity to challenge the regime, and that, like the colonel’s crackdown on the Libyan Islamic movement, it leaves the country’s Christian population unharmed.
The GPC legislation introduces a new collective punishment, which withdraws from the relatives or tribe of any person found guilty of destructive tribal, religious or political activities, all political and social rights. These include the right to join all public bodies; as well as access to public services such as water and power supplies; to fuels for vehicles and for heating houses; to telephones, administrative and financial services; and to all consumer goods.
Surely, if these oppressive measures were directed against secular opponents, there would be an outcry in the west and in its Muslim proxy countries. And the Vatican would probably have postponed its announcement on diplomatic ties with Libya. As it is, the only announcement came from the Americans, and that was directed at the Vatican’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with a country that it accuses of supporting terrorism. Nicholas Burns, the State department spokesman, said on March 11 that the US did not agree with the Vatican’s decision, but hoped that the latter would raise issues of importance for Washington with the Libyan regime.
Burns did not mention the GPC’s oppressive measures. His hope that the Vatican would take up Washington’s concern with Tripoli may be taken to mean that the US was indeed consulted prior to the decision and might have even approved of it.
After all, Pope John Paul II and the US collaborated closely during the ‘cold war’ era, not only to work for the collapse of the Soviet Union, but also to block the spread of communism in the Muslim world.
But the confused colonel should not see in all this any sign that the US wants to rehabilitate him. It may suit Uncle Sam to keep the pressure on. That way, the ‘Brother Leader of the Revolution’ will continue to sing and dance to his tune.
Muslimedia - March 16-31, 1997