, 20 October, 2020 / 10:52 AM
Pope Francis on Sunday, October 18 expressed his solidarity with the 18 fishermen who, for over one and a half months, have been held in Libya.
The fishermen were arrested on September 1 when they were found fishing in disputed territorial waters claimed by the leadership of the North African country.
“I wish to address a word of encouragement and support to the fishermen who have been held in Libya for more than a month, and to their families,” the Holy Father said October 18.
Speaking after Angelus at the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis entrusted the fishermen to “Mary Star of the Sea,” and prayed that they may “keep alive the hope to be able to embrace their loved ones again soon.”
The 18 fishermen of Italian nationality were arrested after Libyan patrol boats detained their fishing vessels on allegations of operating in the territorial waters on the Mediterranean Sea that belong to Libya.
They are being held in Libya’s second most-populous city, Benghazi, which is under the control of the military commander Khalifa Haftar who controls the East part of the oil-rich nation.
The fishing grounds on which the fishermen were arrested have been disputed since 2005, when the then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi extended the country’s territorial waters from 12 nautical offshore miles to 74 nautical miles, a decision that Haftar has been trying to enforce.
In order to free the fishermen, Haftar reportedly wants the Italian government to swap the 18 Italians with four Libyan nationals convicted of human trafficking in 2015 who are serving a 30-year sentence in Italy.
Italy’s Foreign Minister, Luigi Di Maio considers such demand for exchange “unacceptable.” On his part, the Italian prosecutor in-charge of the human trafficking case, Carmelo Zuccaro has termed Haftar’s suggestion “repugnant.”
In his October 18 address, Pope Francis also prayed for peace and stability in North African nation so that the “various discussions in progress at an international level … may be relevant for the future of Libya.”
Libya has been unstable since the 2011 “Arab Spring” that led to the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, with the country now witnessing political wrangles between Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital, Tripoli.
2014 was a defining year in the country’s political crisis after the General National Congress (GNC), which was elected in July 2012 with a mandate to develop a new constitution for the country, extended its mandate beyond January 2014, a move that was met with widespread protests.
Haftar, the then commander of the Libyan Army, called for GNC’s dissolution, a demand that the leadership of GNC rejected. In response, Haftar executed Operation Dignity offensive against the National Congress, forcing its leaders to announce a new election date.
Islamist groups rejected the House of Representatives (HoR) that was elected and instead, continued to support the old GNC, forcing the HoR members to relocate to the East and declare their loyalty to Haftar.
As a way out of the political crisis in the country, the early 2015 UN-sponsored peace talks saw the creation of a Government of National Accord (GNA) under Prime Minister Fayez Serraj. However, the Benghazi-based Haftar’s LNA has continued to fight for control of the North African nation, leading to the current crisis.
With Turkey supporting GNA and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates supporting Haftar’s LNA, peace and security experts observe that the crisis is not just a Libyan affair.
“Brothers and sisters, the time has come to stop every form of hostility, promoting the dialogue that leads to peace, to stability and to the unity of the country,” Pope Francis said October 18 and added, “Let us pray together for the fisherman and for Libya, in silence.”
In the context of the annual event of World Mission Sunday marked October 18, the Holy Father thanked God for the “long -awaited liberation” of Italian missionary in Niger, Fr. Pier Luigi Maccalli after over two years in captivity saying, “we greet him with applause…We also rejoice because three other hostages were released with him.”
“We continue to pray for the missionaries and catechists and for those who are persecuted or kidnapped in various parts of the world,” the Holy Father added.
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Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa