Roman Catholicism in Afghanistan
The Roman Catholic Church in Afghanistan is part of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, under the spiritual leadership of the Pope and curia 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. On 16 May 2002, Pope John Paul II established a mission sui iuris for Afghanistan with Father Giuseppe Moretti as its first superior. The only Catholic church in the country is the chapel at the Italian embassy in Kabul. In 2004, the Missionaries of Charity arrived in Kabul to carry out humanitarian work.
History of the Catholic Church in Afghanistan
Legend from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas and other ancient documents suggests that Saint Thomas 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 the Church 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 Jesuit and Spanish Montesserat and the Portuguese Bento de Góis were warmly welcomed by the Islamic Emperor Akbar, but there was no lasting presence by the Jesuits in the country.
The 20th Century
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 Barnabite Father Egidio Caspani, 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: Rev. Giovanni M. Bernasconi, 1947-1957; Rev. Raffaele Nannetti, 1957-1965; Rev. 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. Father 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 catholic priest in the country. but he was forced to leave in 1994 after being hit with shrapnel and had to return to Italy. 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 renowned. An official from the last pro-Communist government of Mohammad Najibullah went to see Fr Giuseppe 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. Father Moretti again was forced to flee but he later returned. Following the attacks of September 11, 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 Father 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, and it is the Italian Embassy's chapel. Projects of the new mission include a "Peace School" for 500 students that began construction in August 2003 and will be at "European standards". Three nuns also work with those who have mental disabilities in the capital city, teaching those with cerebral palsy how to go to the bathroom 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 dress would make them stand out and be harassed by Muslims, but their order is generally respected. Jesuit Relief Services has also applied to join the growing number of religious orders in the country. Jesuit Refuge 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 has 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 nuns 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 President Hamid Karzai attending Pope John Paul II's funeral and congratulating Pope Benedict XVI on his election. The nuncio to 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.
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