Catholic Church in Afghanistan
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The Catholic Church in Afghanistan is part of the worldwide Latin Catholic Church, under the spiritual leadership of the Pope in Rome. There are very few Catholics in this overwhelmingly Muslim country—just over 200 attend Mass in its only chapel—and freedom of religion has been difficult to obtain in recent times, especially under the former Taliban regime.
Earlier Christians in Afghanistan were members of the historical Church of the East or the Armenian Oriental Orthodox Church, and there had been no sustained Roman Catholic presence in Afghanistan until the 20th Century. From starting in 1921, the Italian embassy in Kabul was allowed to build the first and only legal Catholic chapel to serve foreigners working in the capital, but not open to local nationals. On 16 May 2002, Pope John Paul II established a mission sui iuris for Afghanistan with Fr. Giuseppe Moretti as its first superior, presently Fr. Giovanni M. Scalese (both Italian Barnabites). In 2004, the Missionaries of Charity arrived in Kabul to carry out humanitarian work.
Legend from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas and other ancient documents suggests that Saint Thomas the Apostle preached in Bactria, which is today northern Afghanistan. The Nestorians planted Christianity in the area, and there have been nine bishops and dioceses in the region, including Herat (424-1310), Farah (544-1057), Kandahar, and Balkh. This early establishment of Christianity was overcome by Muslim invasions in the 7th century, though the territory was not substantially controlled by Muslims until the 9th and 10th centuries. In 1581 and 1582 respectively, the Jesuits Montesserat of Spain and Bento de Góis of Portugal were warmly welcomed by the Islamic Emperor Akbar, but there was no lasting Jesuit presence in the country.
Italy was the first country to recognise Afghanistan’s independence in 1919, and the Afghan government asked how it could thank Italy. Rome requested the right to build a chapel, which was being requested by international technicians then living in the Afghan capital. A clause giving Italy the right to build a chapel within its embassy was included in the Italian-Afghan treaty of 1921, and that same year the Barnabites arrived to start giving pastoral care. The actual pastoral work began in 1933 when the chapel international technicians had asked for was built. In the 1950s, the simple cement chapel was finished. On January 1, 1933, Fr. Egidio Caspani, CRSP, inaugurated the provisional chapel. His appointment was a personal request of Pope Pius XI to the Barnabite Superior General. Fr. Caspani had been the Rector of the Barnabite Seminary in Rome. To accompany him on this journey one of his students was ordained and sent with him, not publicly as a priest, but as his Diplomatic Courier and assistant Chancellor at the Embassy. Thus Mr. (really Fr.) Ernesto Cagnacci also began this new mission in Kabul. "At the time the Catholic residents numbered in the hundreds, the majority of them in the capital, members of embassies or contractors employed by the Afghan Government of Afghanistan; others were dispersed throughout the country and were generally technicians and specialized workers, that lent their skills to the construction of various public works that marked the progress of the country." In addition to his pastoral work, Fr. Caspani kept detailed notes of the politics, culture and geography of the land. These observations were later published in an Italian volume published in collaboration with Fr. Cagnacci entitled, "Afghanistan, crocevie dell'Asia". Over the years a number of Barnabites have served as chaplains. After Fr. Caspani there was: Giovanni M. Bernasconi, 1947-1957; Raffaele Nannetti, 1957-1965; and Angelo Panigati, 1965 - 1990.
Soviet invasion period and Taliban insurgency
Pope John Paul II called for a "just solution" to the Soviet–Afghan war in the 1980s. Fr. Giuseppe Moretti was first came to Afghanistan in 1977, and stayed until he was shot when the Italian embassy was attacked in 1994 and was forced to leave the country. From 1990 to 1994 he was the only Roman Catholic priest in the country. After 1994, only the Little Sisters of Jesus were allowed to remain in Afghanistan, as they had been there since 1955 and their work was well known. An official from the last pro-Communist government of Mohammad Najibullah went to see Fr. Moretti in 1992 with a sketch for a small compound that would be guaranteed immunity. However, nothing came of it as the political situation in Afghanistan unravelled—the civil war escalated and the Taliban came to power. Fr. Moretti again was forced to flee but he later returned. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Catholic Relief Services sent clothing, food and bedding to returning refugees and internally displaced persons. They also bought school supplies for children returning to school.
With the fall of the Taliban, Pope John Paul II requested that Fr. Moretti return to Afghanistan. The first Mass in 9 years was celebrated on January 27, 2002, for members of the International Security Force and various members of foreign agencies. On May 16, 2002, a mission sui iuris was created for all of Afghanistan. There is only one functioning chapel in the country, in the Italian Embassy in Kabul. Projects of the new mission include a "Peace School" for 500 students that began construction in August 2003 and will be to "European standards". Three religious sisters also work with those who have mental disabilities in the capital city, teaching those with cerebral palsy how to go to the toilet and how to eat on their own. The small community went through a period of crisis during the kidnapping on May 17, 2005, of Clementina Cantoni, a member of CARE International, by four gunmen in Kabul as she walked to her car. Sisters from the Missionaries of Charity had their house blessed on May 9, 2006, and have already started taking in street children. There had been fears that their distinctive blue and white habit would make them stand out and be harassed by Muslims, but their institute is generally respected. Jesuit Relief Services has also applied to join the growing number of religious institutes in the country. Jesuit Refugee Services has recently opened a technical school in Herat for 500 students including 120 girls.
There have been efforts made to start inter-religious dialogue, with the Islamist head of the Afghan Supreme Court. Mullah Fazul Shinwari attended the inauguration of the mission and expressed a desire to meet with the Pope.
The Catholic community in Afghanistan is mainly made of foreigners, especially aid workers, and no Afghans are known to be currently part of the Church, mainly due to great social and legal pressure not to convert to non-Islamic religions. Some Afghans have converted while overseas, but they keep it secret when they return. Two Christian groups, Church World Service and Norwegian Church Aid, were accused of proselytizing while doing aid work in Afghanistan, which they denied, and 1,000 Afghans protested in Mazar-i-Sharif and burned the pope in effigy. Despite this, the community has grown from only a few sisters to a full Sunday Mass of around 100. Church attendance dipped in 2012 due to security concerns and less emphasis on religion among the foreigners in Afghanistan in recent years.
Relations with the new democratic government of Afghanistan have been positive, such as Afghan President Hamid Karzai attending Pope John Paul II's funeral and congratulating Pope Benedict XVI on his election.
The papal nuncio to neighboring Pakistan visited Afghanistan in 2005 and held a Mass in the Italian Embassy Chapel to an overflowing crowd, and Catholic officials hope that official diplomatic ties and a public Catholic church will be possible in the future.
Mission sui iuris
On May 16, 2002, a mission sui iuris (pre-diocesan jurisdiction) was created for all of Afghanistan, which remains exempt, i.e. directly dependent on the Holy See (no ecclesiastical province) and notably its missisonary Roman Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. On November 4, 2014, Pope Francis appointed Giovanni M. Scalese, CRSP, as the first ecclesiastical superior of the mission sui iuris in Afghanistan.
As per 2014, it pastorally served 200 Catholics (under 0.01% of 26,000,000 total) on 647,500 km² in 1 parish (in national capital Kabul, with the single church in the Italian embassy) with 4 priests (religious) and 16 lay religious (4 brothers, 12 sisters).
- Ecclesiastical Superiors of Afghanistan (Roman Rite)
- Father Giuseppe Moretti, Barnabites (B.) (born Italy 1938) (2002.05.16 – retired 2014.11.04)
- Fr. Giovanni M. Scalese, B. (born Italy 1955) (2014.11.04 – ...)
Members of foreign militaries (notably on NATO mission) are served by chaplains embedded within their units. In 2009, 17,000 soldiers from the United States stationed in eastern Afghanistan were served by 6 Catholic priests, including Catholic chaplains from other countries. Some bases have weekly Masses, while remote posts may only have Mass every 60 to 90 days.
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