Abandoned cathedral a reminder of Gadhafi's neglect

McClatchy NewspapersApril 18, 2011 

BENGHAZI, Libya — Benghazi Cathedral was once the largest cathedral in North Africa. Today, it's the biggest reminder of Benghazi's lost promise, an imposing monument to eastern Libya's neglect under Moammar Gadhafi.

The pews are long gone, as are various plans for how to make use of the building: as a mosque, the party headquarters for the Arab Socialist Union or a stock market office.

Today, the only sign of life are the pigeons that flutter toward one of two still-magnificent domes on the rare occasions when someone opens the front door. Audiotapes of speeches by the late Egyptian President and Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser and shattered plates depicting Gadhafi litter the floor.

Benghazis don't know what to do with the cathedral, but they know they don't want it torn down, even though it's been abandoned for 40 years. It simply has too many links to Libyan history.

Italian Roman Catholics ruled Libya until 1951, when King Idris declared independence across the street from the cathedral, but Christianity's roots go much deeper. Simon — the man who carried Jesus' cross to Calvary on the day Christians remember as Good Friday — was from Cyrene, on Libya's coast, and St. Mark, who wrote one of the gospels, was from northern Libya; the ruins of his monastery can be seen near the modern-day town of Susah.

"No one has ever talked about tearing it down. It is a part of our history," said Ramadan Jarbou, a Benghazi political analyst and historian. "I personally think it should be a small museum to Italian occupation so our children will know what happened."

Before the current revolt, there were 20,000 Christians in eastern Libya and 60,000 nationwide. But most were foreigners, and they've now fled, said Benghazi Bishop Sylvester Magro, 70. He described that Christian community as a cosmopolitan mix of Filipino, Nigerian and Indian laborers, British oil executives and some Italians still here 60 years after Libya was declared independent.

The church has taken no position on the rebellion.

"We decided to stay with the people," Magro said. "The revolution is not our business. We try to support those who have no jobs, no food."

The cathedral was built over 10 years starting in 1929, on land the Italians confiscated. Nearby Muslim shopkeepers were forced to pay taxes to help finance its construction, Jarbou said. It looks out to the city's seaside corniche.

The cathedral's decline began immediately after King Idris declared independence. Then Gadhafi ordered the remaining Christians to pack up and go in 1970, the year after he overthrew Idris.

The cathedral remained open for seven more years, until maintaining it became too overwhelming for the few Christians who were left.

The crosses atop the building came down in the 1970s, replaced with crescents, amid plans to turn the cathedral into a mosque, as had happened to the cathedral in Tripoli. But its location and structure made it impossible for the imams to face Mecca as required, and the idea died, though the crescents still stand above the building.

It next became the headquarters of the Arab Socialist Union but that, too, quickly fizzled. Within two years of his coup, Gadhafi had lost the support of Benghazis. By 1977, when he ordered the first public hangings of political opponents, including two in front of the cathedral, his hope for a base of supporters here was over.

In the last decade, there was an effort to turn the cathedral into the nation's stock market headquarters. But to do so would have given Benghazi more economic clout than Gadhafi wanted it to have; the headquarters went to Tripoli.

Benghazi is littered with abandoned buildings: An abandoned theater is around the corner, and nearby is a massive former Turkish palace that dates to when Libya was part of the Ottoman Empire.

Locals say Gadhafi always preferred to spend money on projects in Tripoli, rather than Benghazi.

"The whole city has been neglected for more than 30 years," said Jarbou, the historian. "The money goes to Tripoli. I guess we are used to it."

In 1976, the far smaller Church of the Immaculate Conception opened in downtown Benghazi for the remaining Christians. Magro, the bishop, said Christians were allowed to practice their faith freely, but the tiny church has been closed since February after someone attempted to burn it down.

The modern struggle of how Christians and Muslims can live side by side here remains, as does the hope that it can happen.

Morad Majdi al Faitory, 23, is a student turned rebel who spends part of his days guarding the small church. He's a Muslim who heard about the attempt to burn it down and worries that someone will attack it again, either as an act of violence against Christians or as an effort to portray the rebels as anti-Christian.

On a recent Friday, Faitory said he believed that a liberated Libya could welcome Christians.

"If someone manages to burn it, it will make people think al Qaida is here," Faitory said. "I don't want anything to tarnish what this revolution is about."

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For more news from the Middle East, visit McClatchy's Middle East page.

McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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