09/12/2012, 00.00
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Cyrenaica, the friendship of religious sisters with Libyan Islamists

Sister Celeste Biasolo, superior of the convent of the Holy Family of Derna, says that for over 92 years there has been a bond between the religious and the Muslim population. On August 15, the city mobilized to help the sisters victims of a robbery by two young criminals. Service to the sick and the elderly, the silent witness of the love of Christ among Muslims.

Derna (AsiaNews) - Regarded as one of the Islamic strongholds in  Libya and Cyrenaica, Derna together with Benghazi was where the offensive against Gaddafi and his regime first started in March 2011. It was formerly the site of recruitment of Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the first to fight Gaddafi in the 90s. During the seven months of the war, the Western media have repeatedly spoken of the presence of an autonomous Islamic caliphate in the city created by the religious authorities and spread data on suicide bombers sent from there to fight the jihad in Iraq, Afghanistan and now in Syria. In 2007, the U.S. military in Baghdad issued a list of foreign mujahideen, 112 Libyans among them, who were fighting alongside the insurgents, 52 (including suicide bombers) were from Derna. AsiaNews speaks to Sister Celeste Biasolo, mother superior of the convent of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Spoleto. The nun paints an image of a society very different from the one that appeared in recent months in the media and news, which have repeatedly branded the city as Islamist, regardless of its culture and its people.

For Sister Celeste the people of Derna are very religious, some are close to Islam, but they have no problem with regard to our religion. "They know that we are religious and Catholic - she explains - but through our daily work with patients and especially with the elderly they note we are different from them in a humanity which has surprised them. For this reason, we are a Church of Silence . Freely and lovingly helping those who suffer, we witness the message of Jesus among people of other faiths. Every day relatives of these people thank us describing us as 'angels on earth.' " "I have now been in this country for 28 years - admits the nun - some of my sisters, all Italian, have been on mission here for more than 40 years. After so many years we do not feel Italian, but 'Dernians', and the inhabitants of the city consider us as such. "

"In the months of war - she says - we had no problems, we continued our work. Every day someone came to visit the monastery to check on how we were." The climate of chaos began with the regime offensive and the presence of many Islamic extremist militants, including foreigners, there were no deliberate attacks, or cases of lack of respect for the religious, who remained in Derna throughout the period of the conflict.

The only incident in recent months was the theft of a car belonging to the sisters. The robbery dates to the beginning of August. One afternoon two young armed and hooded men blocked the nuns car in one of the streets of the city, telling the nun who was driving to get out and hand over the car. Criminality is the result of a lack of security and Sister Celeste confirms that there was no ulterior motive in the two boys' gesture. "With the fall of the regime - she continues - drugs have entered the country, many young people do not work and so commit thefts. Some of our nurses have been injured in these criminal actions which unfortunately are a daily occurrence."

The robbery however, shocked the entire Muslim community of Derna, so much so that the heads of the 150 tribes in the city held a public ceremony to offer their apologies to the religious. "From August 15 until the end of Ramadan - says Sister Celeste - our house became a sort of attraction: a continual procession of people flocked to our backyard for several days. Three-quarters of the city's inhabitants visited with their families, bringing gifts of food, clothing, and everything that could be useful for us and for our work. Hospital managers forced us to take  a week of rest to recover from misfortune. " In a short time the 150 heads of the tribes of Derna erected a tent in a wing of the hospital destroyed by the war, to facilitate the work with the sick and promised the gift of a new car. "This has been a great demonstration of affection and gratitude for our mission. To help us get around, the authorities have also arranged for a driver for our bus."

The sister points out, however, that this was not an isolated act and that gratitude and friendship with the Muslim population is most evident in their daily work: "We are with the sick from morning until sunset. We care for them, give them confidence, we are simply at their side. Whenever you come they come to the clinic or a ward physicians, nurses, administration, thank us. Among Muslims the feeling of support and service to the needy is almost absent and human involvement with the sick is very rare. It lacks humanity. For this reason, they are strongly affected by this diversity: the love of neighbor that Jesus taught us. "

The presence of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Spoleto in Libya dates back to 1921. The founder of the Institute, blessed Peter Bonilli, opened a mission in Cyrenaica, in the city of Derna. To date, the religious are four. "In the early '90s - says Sister Celeste - there were 18 of us. Now we are reduced to a few older sisters, but we await with joy the arrival of three other sisters from India, which will give new strength to carry out our mission of charity among these people" .



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