05/23/2012, 00.00
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Franciscan nuns, a quiet witness of charity among Libyan Muslims

Sister Bruna Menghini and three fellow nuns did not flee from Yefren (150 km from Tripoli) during the civil war. For more than 40 years, she has worked with the sick, the elderly and people left to fend for themselves in the predominantly Muslim country. Friendships and dialogue with Muslims were nurtured by small acts of charity and love. The bad blood left from clashes between Gaddafi supporters and rebels as well as the country's disorganisation cast a shadow on June's elections.

Yefren (AsiaNews) - "The horrors of war brought us closer to the Libyan people. By helping the sick and sharing suffering with the people, we realised we are part of the community and not outsiders. They are the ones who convinced us to stay," said Sister Bruna Menghini, a nun with the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, who spoke to AsiaNews about her experience in Yefren, a small town some 150 kilometres from Tripoli. In Libya for the past 43 years, she and three fellow nuns chose to remain with the local population despite NATO airstrikes and the fighting between rebels and Gaddafi forces.

"Helping the sick and the elderly takes up much of our day," Sr Bruna said. "It is often hard for us to work according to our method. Those who run the facility see things differently. However, in the past few years, we have been able to develop a relationship with patients and staff. When we go home, our mission continues as we have developed friendly relations with the residents of our neighbourhood who respect us and hold us in high esteem."

The town's residents are from the same tribe and over time, they have come to accept the small community of nuns. "The war showed us that we are part of their community," Sr Bruna explained. "When unrest began in March 2011, our neighbours came every day to see if we needed anything. Without them, we would not have made it."

During the heated months of fighting against Gaddafi, she said, the town of Yefren was left without food supplies for weeks. Many families could hardly afford to buy enough food on the black market to feed their children. Still, people in the nuns' neighbourhood shared everything with the nuns.

"Everyone in Yefren knows that we are Catholic nuns," she said. "We have no reason to hide it. Sometimes we can even express our religious beliefs with women in our neighbourhood. But our silent and unobtrusive actions for the elderly and the sick have fed the curiosity of Muslims and encouraged dialogue."

For Sr Bruna, Christian charity never goes unnoticed. Muslims, especially the older ones, appreciate those who work with the heart and not only for money. Overtime, this selfless approach has overcome mistrust and fear among Muslims.

For the past few weeks, Sr Bruna said, she and her fellow sisters started to take care of an elderly woman left alone, abandoned by everyone. Every day they visit her at home, help her get up, wash and get dressed, spending part of the day with her.

"Many of the neighbours were amazed by this act of humanity towards the poor widow," she said. "Men, who are usually not interested in such issues, have started to stop us in the street to ask about the lady's health, wanting to know if we needed help."

Such deeds, born from the love for mission Jesus showed them, led her and her fellow nuns to stay despite the dangers.

Ordinary people are slowly getting over the civil war, but the country is still a disaster zone. "People were not ready for such quick and sudden change. Many people continue to support Gaddafi. Now they could be killed if they spoke their mind. In many provinces, clashes are still taking place. No one has figured out who is in charge."

The country's first free elections will be held in June. However, the National Transitional Council (NTC) has not explained how the vote will be done and how candidates will run. "People don't know for whom to vote," Sr Bruna noted. "People do not know what freedom and democracy mean. They must be educated to understand these values, which have never been part of their culture."

The presence of many candidates connected with extremist Muslim groups, men like former al-Qaeda member Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a onetime military chief in Tripoli, does not frighten Sr Bruna. She remains confident that the Catholic Church has a future in Libya.

"Libyans are Muslim and so follow and have high regard for radical Islamists," she noted. "Yet, the closeness they showed us over the years is a sign that some emotions and facts touch heart irrespective of culture. God created us equal in his image and likeness. Thus, some of him is in all of us. We have faith in Him. Our task is to stand by these people in such a sensitive moment. Our Muslim friends are happy to see us among them."

The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary came to Libya in 1925. Five nuns currently live in the country, two working as nurses at Yefren's public hospital, one at a small government social assistance centre. In view of her advanced age, Sr Bruna takes care of the nuns' small home in a residential area of the predominantly Berber town. A fifth nun lives in Tripoli, where she works in a rest home for the elderly and the disabled.

Altogether, some 20 Catholic nuns operate in Libya. Four belong to the Little Sisters of Jesus, five to Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, eight to the Missionaries of Charity (in two communities) and four to the Daughters of Charity.

They work in hospitals, social welfare centres and refugee camps.

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