Bishop Giovanni Martinelli could well be the last Italian left in Tripoli and he has no intention of leaving, despite repeated death threats. “My faithful are here, I have to stay,” he says.
Italy is well along in its repatriation of Italian nationals living in Libya, who have been requested to return immediately to Italy because of the marked threat of Islamic State jihadists. Hundreds have already made the crossing, many on the ship “San Gwann,” owned by the Virtu Ferries company, escorted by a fully armed Italian naval vessel with an unmanned Air Force Predator drone flying overhead.
Italy was the last country to close its Libyan embassy, and has already moved its staff of about 100 people back to Italy by ship. The “deteriorating situation in Libya” made it necessary to close the embassy, said Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Bishop Martinelli has opted to stay, preferring martyrdom to abandoning his flock. “This is the culmination of my testimony,” said the bishop in a phone interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
Martinelli arrived in Libya in 1971 from the Italian village of Camacici, in the region of Verona, and it has become his home. When he arrived, there were some 150 thousand baptized Christians in Libya, whereas now there are only three hundred left. Martinelli is undaunted.
“My community is here. How can I give up? It would be a betrayal,” he said. “This is the purpose of my mission, and if it is to be witnessed with my blood, so be it.”
Martinelli, a Franciscan priest, quotes St. Francis of Assisi, who himself went to preach in a Muslim country, despite the dangers. “Whoever wants to go among the Saracens must leave everything.” Francis, in fact, travelled with 12 companions to try to convert the Sultan of Babylon. They were taken prisoners, beaten and then carried bound before the Sultan, who eventually converted to Christianity.
But so far no one is talking of converting here. “They came to me in church to tell me that I must die,” Martinelli said. “But I want you to know that Father Martinelli is well and that his mission could come to an end. I saw heads cut off and I realized that I could wind up the same way. And if God wills that that the end of my mission is to have my head cut off, so it will be.”
“Being able to bear witness is a precious thing,” Martinelli said. “I thank the Lord for allowing me to do so, even with martyrdom. I do not know where this journey will take me. If it takes me to death, it means that God has chosen this for me.”
“I am not moving from here,” he said. “And I am not afraid.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.