Italian vicar refuses to flee Libya despite threats

An Italian vicar has defied calls from Rome to leave Libya and vowed to stay in the country despite death threats, saying he would rather risk being beheaded and "martyred" by Islamic extremists.

Italian vicar refuses to flee Libya despite threats
Libyan police officers set up a checkpoint in Tripoli on January 25th 2015. Photo: Mahmud Turkia/AFP

Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli has sworn he will stay in the capital Tripoli, despite the Italian government on Friday warning its citizens to leave Libya amidst escalating violence.

“My community is here. How could I leave? It would be a betrayal,” he told Corriere del Veneto by phone. “This is the end of my mission. And if the end must bear witness to my blood, I will do it.” 

Martinelli, 73, was born in Libya before returning to north-east Italy with his family. He moved back to the country in 1971 as a monk and now leads the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi in Tripoli.

Despite the closure of the Italian embassy on Sunday and the repatriation of around 100 nationals to Italy, Martinelli celebrated mass on Monday and said he was “not moving” nor was he scared.

Christians in Libya have faced threats from Islamists in the country, with Martinelli being targeted in Tripoli. “They came into the church to tell me I must die. But I want it known that Father Martinelli is ok and that his mission could reach its term,” the vicar said.

His defiant stance comes just days after Isis militants released footage of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians being beheaded. The killings prompted Egypt to launch air strikes against Isis targets in Libya, while the Italian government called for a diplomatic response with UN involvement.

Martinelli said that he was well aware he could also be murdered by Islamic extremists.

“If God wants the end to be my head cut off, so be it. Also if God doesn’t look for heads cut off, but other things in a man…I could give testimony to something precious.

“I thank the Lord that He allows me to do so, even with martyrdom,” he said.

SEE ALSO: 'No military intervention in Libya': Renzi

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Libya conference to be held in Sicily in November: Italy

A Libya conference will be held in Sicily in November, Italy's foreign minister said Tuesday, with talks focusing on an "inclusive approach" to stabilising the war-torn north African country while not fixating on a date for elections.

Libya conference to be held in Sicily in November: Italy
The coastline of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

The peace conference in Palermo on November 12 and 13 will aim to “identify the stages of a stabilisation process”, Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi told the Senate.

The meeting would drive towards “a common solution, even if there are differences of opinion between the parties involved”, he said.

Four key leaders from Libya agreed at a conference in Paris in May to hold landmark polls on December 10 as part of a French-led plan to stabilise the crisis-hit country despite ongoing violence and deep divisions.

France, however, has faced opposition to the election timetable from the United States along with other European Union countries, notably Italy.

Milanesi said he had received “confirmation of interest” in the conference from Libyan military strongman Khalifa Haftar as well as support from the US, and was planning on discussing the dossier with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Monday.

“No deadlines will be imposed on the Libyans, nor tasks dictated,” Milanesi said.

Italy, a key supporter of the UN-backed government of Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli, said in September it wants to “maintain an active dialogue” with all well-intentioned actors in Libya.

The Libyan capital has been at the centre of a battle for influence between armed groups since dictator Moamer Kadhafi was driven from power and killed in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising.

Sarraj's Government of National Accord has been unable to form a functioning army or regular security forces and has been forced to rely on militias to keep Tripoli safe.

Militias formed the backbone of the uprising that toppled Kadhafi.

Since then rival administrations, including one allied with Haftar and based in the remote east, and the militias have competed for authority and oil wealth in the North African country.

Accused by his opponents of wanting to establish a new military dictatorship, Haftar refuses to recognise the authority of Sarraj's Tripoli-based GNA.