EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH FATHER GIOVANNI SCALESE ON THE CHURCH IN AFGHANISTAN (2) – Between Rome and Kabul

Photo: https://agensir.it

Aurelio Porfiri

You are living in Afghanistan. Why you are staying in a so difficult place?

As I said, the Barnabites stayed in Asia (Burma, a Buddhist country) until 1830. They came again to Asia a hundred years later, this time to a Muslim country, Afghanistan.

Afghanistan gained independence in 1919. As the new king Amanullah wanted to modernize the country, the coming of technicians from Europe was favored. Among them, there were also Catholics, who asked for the presence of a priest. The king informed the Holy See that he was willing to accede to the request, resorting to Italy, which was the first European country to recognize the Afghan independence.

The possibility to host a Catholic chaplain within the Italian “legation” was provided by the “Agreement between Italy and Afghanistan to exchange permanent diplomatic missions” in 1921. For this delicate task, Pius XI chose a Barnabite, Father Egidio Caspani, who hailed from Desio, the native town of the Pope. He arrived in Kabul on Christmas afternoon in 1932; the chapel (and with it the Mission) was inaugurated on the first of January, 1933. After Father Caspani, other four Barnabites followed until 1994, when, during the civil war, the then chaplain, Father Giuseppe Moretti, was injured and so forced to leave the Mission. During the Taliban period, there was no priest in Afghanistan; only few Little Sisters of Jesus remained to keep the lamp lighted.

In 2002, after the end of the Taliban rule, John Paul II decided to establish the Mission sui iuris (which means “independent”) of Afghanistan, a jurisdiction likened to a diocese, presided by an Ecclesiastical Superior, who acts as the Local Ordinary. The new Mission was entrusted to the Barnabites, and Father Moretti was appointed as first Superior. Like any other bishop, he resigned as he completed his seventy-fifth year of age. On November 4, 2014 I was appointed as his successor. I was installed on January 11, 2015. So, by now, I have been here for three years.

Tell us: how is your life there?

My first experience with the new environment was not very pleasant. Unlike the first years after the “liberation,” when the rest of Afghanistan was still unsafe, but in Kabul it was possible to live freely and safely, the situation has little by little deteriorated even in the capital. So, when I arrived, I found a city under siege, where movements, at least for foreigners, were limited and terrorist attacks were an everyday occurrence. Since I have been here, the situation has further worsened: now the embassies look like fortresses, and it is becoming more and more difficult to come in and go out. Of course, all that impacts also on pastoral activity, both for me, who cannot go out freely, and for the faithful, who have trouble to enter the “Green Zone” and the Italian Embassy, where the Mission church is placed.

What are your duties?

My task is to provide pastoral care to all Catholics in Afghanistan. In a country which is 100 percent Muslim, I am the only priest allowed (with diplomatic coverage). The armed forces have their own chaplains (even though I go every Saturday to the NATO base here in Kabul to say Mass for the Italian troops). There are also a couple of Jesuits (at the beginning they were four, but, after one of them was kidnapped, their number has diminished), but they are here not in their capacity as priests, but rather as Jesuit Refugee Service. Thank God, there are also two female religious communities.

Unfortunately, last February the Little Sisters of Jesus, after more than sixty years of silent but fruitful presence, left. Now we have four Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s Sisters), who manage an orphanage, and an inter-congregational community (PBK = “Pro Bambini di Kabul”) with three Sisters, who run a small school for disabled children. Both activities are much appreciated even by the civil authorities. They can see that Christians do good without any self-interest. The Church in Afghanistan takes care of the “leftovers” of society, those whom no one would look after. She could not do anything else: any form of proselytism is excluded; we have to be content with a silent testimony.

I am sure pastoral activity in this situation should be really hard….

Pastoral activity is forcedly limited to the celebration of the Holy Mass. I celebrate everyday in the chapel of the Embassy (which is a kind of “cathedral” for the Mission): on weekdays, the Mass is usually attended by the Sisters; on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays also the other faithful join us. It is a little flock, whose attendance is conditioned by the factors we were saying of. Apart from Mass and some confessions, it is not possible to take other initiatives. Nor there are occasions to administer other sacraments (weddings, baptisms, etc.). There are no families, no children nor young people. Since I have been here, just once I gave a Confirmation (to an officer of the Embassy).

What is the situation of Catholics in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan has never been a Christian country. But this does not mean that in Afghanistan there has never been any Christian presence. Apparently, the Magi came from this area. According to an ancient tradition, one of them, Caspar, would be a king of the Kushan Empire, corresponding to present-day Afghanistan. It would seem that also the apostle Thomas, in his journey to India, passed through Afghanistan.

What is historically certain is the existence of some bishoprics in the Afghan territory, beginning from the 3rd century. Between the 5th and the 6th centuries at least seven dioceses were established, belonging to the so-called “Church of the East” or Nestorian Church.

In the 7th century there was the Islamic conquest; but it did not cause an immediate disappearance of Christianity. Christian presence was eradicated from Afghanistan only in the 14th century. Nevertheless, from the 17th to the end of the 19th century there was an Armenian community in Kabul.

Nowadays there are, at least officially, no Christian Afghans (maybe, there are some outside the country). Since its institution, the Catholic Mission has never baptized any Afghan citizen. To do it would mean to risk their life. Even though the Constitution formally acknowledges religious freedom for the followers of other religions (art. 2), Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic where “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam” (art. 3). And we know that Islam states death penalty for apostates.

So basically you can only focus on foreigners…

Nowadays the Afghan Church consists in the international community, made up of the diplomatic and technical personnel (as said, the military have their chaplains, who depend on their own jurisdictions). A dozen years ago there were also many foreign workers (especially Filipinos), who had to leave the country, because they were supposed to steal work from the Afghans. Now just few of them are left. With the worsening of the situation, even many a diplomat and technician have gone away.

But the problem with the international community is that the majority of its members do not go to church. Here we can realize, more than in other countries, how much has the secularization affected us. Westerners do not set a good example to the Afghans, who, on the contrary, are very religious. Admittedly, the churchgoers are admirable for their faith, courage, tenacity, and even for their devotion and active participation in the liturgical celebrations. But the best experience is when some, who perhaps in their country live far from church, here, in this special context, return to their faith and are reconciled with God and the Church.

What is your wish?

My wish is to see Afghanistan pacified as soon as possible and become a country where all may live freely and safely, and where a real religious freedom is acknowledged. I do not expect to see in a short time the Afghans converted to Christianity (even though we cannot set limits to God’s omnipotence); I would like to see Afghanistan become like other Muslim countries where there are many foreign workers who can practice their faith without obstacles and the Church can carry out her pastoral activity without limitations.

On October 13, the 100th anniversary of the last apparition at Fatima, we consecrated our little community and the whole Afghanistan to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. We are convinced that what we cannot manage with our own strength can be done without problems by the grace of God through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. Thus, we have entrusted ourselves and this poor country to her, so that she may find a solution which so far human beings have not been able to find.

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