Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-Fai as apostolic nuncio to Libya on May 18, 2023, the Vatican press office announced. The 73-year-old Chinese diplomat has been nuncio to Malta since October 24. Now he has the delicate task of being the voice of the Pontiff, who has been denouncing for years the treatment of migrants in Libya and the tragedy of a Mediterranean that has become a “cemetery.”
Archbishop Hon Tai-Fai is an atypical nuncio who did not follow the traditional diplomatic curriculum. To begin with, he is a Salesian, while nuncios are traditionally from the diocesan clergy. He was born in 1950 in Hong Kong and took his vows in 1975 within the Chinese province of the Salesians of Don Bosco, which includes Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and mainland China.
Ordained a priest in 1982, he studied theology in London and Rome and became a member of the International Theological Commission in 2004. Spotted in this capacity by Cardinal Ratzinger — later Pope Benedict XVI — he was ordained a bishop in 2010, becoming secretary of the then-Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the dicastery that oversees mission lands.
Rome and Asia
His years of service under Cardinal Robert Sarah and then Cardinal Fernando Filoni included the investigation of abuse charges against Archbishop Anthony Apuron of Agaa on the Pacific island of Guam. This crisis situation would cause Archbishop Hon Tai-Fai to serve as interim Apostolic Administrator “sede plena” of this Pacific diocese himself from June to November 2016, with the titular archbishop remaining nominally in office for the duration of the investigation.
In 2017, in the context of the rapprochement between Rome and Beijing that would lead a year later to the signing of an agreement on episcopal appointments, archbishop Tai-Fai was reassigned as apostolic nuncio to Greece. This was interpreted as a distancing of this prelate who was critical of the Chinese regime. In 2012, he had denounced the arrests of bishops and had even written directly to the then-president, Hu Jintao. Under the current pontificate, the Holy See has adopted a conciliatory position towards China. Although he was then the nuncio in a less high profile country, Archbishop Hon Tai-Fai was nevertheless one of the organizers of Pope Francis’ visit to Greece in December 2021.
Libya, a land of suffering
The Apostolic Nunciature in Libya has been vacant since the resignation of the previous nuncio, Archbishop Alessandro d’Errico, on April 30, 2022. The nuncio in Malta has been systematically assigned to Libya since 1995.
On many occasions, Pope Francis has denounced the migration drama in Libya. He has even used the term “lager” — concentration camp — to describe the country’s migrant camps, where displaced people are deprived of their freedom and mistreated while waiting to make the often deadly crossing to Europe.
Libya is also a land of hardship for the few Christians who live there: about 300 permanent residents plus about 40,000 foreign workers and a hard-to-estimate migrant population. Pope Francis recently announced that the Catholic Church will also officially recognize the 21 Christian martyrs — mostly Copts from Egypt — killed in Libya in 2015.
There are no dioceses in Libya, despite a Christian presence from antiquity until the arrival of Islam. Catholicism is associated with the colonization of the country by the Italians, expelled by Colonel Gaddafi in 1969. However, the country has three apostolic vicariates (Tripoli, Benghazi, and Derna) and one apostolic prefecture (Misrata), and two churches — one in Tripoli, the other in Benghazi.