Pope Francis Praises Courage of Catholics in Libya as ISIS Stronghold Grows

Pope Francis leads the synod of bishops in Paul VI's hall at the Vatican

In a meeting with North African bishops in the Vatican Monday, Pope Francis praised the “courage, loyalty, and perseverance” of Catholics in Libya in the face of the “explosion of violence” in the region.

Pope Francis said that North Africans legitimately aspire to greater freedom and respect for human dignity and conscience, but until now, “developments” in the area are leading to increased violence instead, referring both to Libya’s ongoing civil war and the infiltration of Islamic State (ISIS) militants in the region.

Francis was speaking to the bishops of CERNA, the episcopal body that comprises the bishops of North Africa: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.

Meanwhile, U.S. and European intelligence sources have confirmed the presence of more than a dozen ISIS militants in Libya, including in the cities of Benghazi, Derna, and Sirte, some of whom have ties to the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They have also set up training camps for new recruits.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, James Clapper, U.S. Director of National Intelligence, said that, in its current state of anarchy, Libya provides an ideal environment for terrorists. Not only ISIS, he said, but various other terror organizations, including Ansar al-Sharia, are now operating there.

“There are, in addition to ISIL, probably six or eight other terrorist groups that have gathered in Libya. So it’s a magnet because, essentially, it’s ungoverned,” he said.

One source said they would not be surprised “if the next 9/11 came out of Libya.”

Reports on Monday said that Libya’s internationally recognized Parliament has brought a former anti-Islamist general out of retirement, naming him as head of the Libyan army.

“I’ve chosen Major General Khalifa Belgacem Haftar for the post of commander-in-chief of the army after promoting him to the rank of lieutenant general,” said Aguila Salah, the speaker of the parliament. Haftar is scheduled to be sworn in Tuesday.

Three weeks ago, Pope Francis met with another group of African bishops, urging them to protect the young from “fundamentalism and the distorted use of religion.”

His words followed on a series of brutal episodes of violence, with the Islamic jihadist group Boko Haram killing as many as 2,000 people in a single day, along with continued violence in the Central African Republic and Sudan.

In his address Monday, Francis alluded to “many dangers” faced by members of the clergy, religious and laity of the Catholic Church, saying that they are “authentic witnesses of the Gospel” in the region.

“I thank you very much and I encourage you to continue your efforts to contribute to peace and reconciliation,” the Pope said.

Calling them the bishops of the “periphery,” a term Francis uses for the marginalized and outcasts, he said that the best antidote to the violence they are experiencing is education leading to “acceptance of differences” as a wealth that brings fruitfulness rather than a source of division.

He also said that he considers it essential that in the dioceses of the area, “priests, religious and laity are formed” in the area of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue.

Francis told the bishops to take back to their people the Pope’s affection and the certainty of his closeness and encouragement, as well as a special greeting for “those who are suffering.”

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.