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The short history of Catholicism in Afghanistan

Father Carl Subler, a U.S. Army chaplain, celebrates Mass for soldiers at a forward operating base in Zabul province, Afghanistan, in 2009. (CNS photo/courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense)

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The news is flooded with reports about the departure of American troops from Afghanistan. Fingers are being pointed, and harsh words are being spoken, but without entering the controversy, it is interesting for Catholics to consider Afghanistan in terms of its relationship with the Church and Christianity.

The relationship goes back. Some say that early on Christian missionaries came to what today is Afghanistan, even in apostolic times. Perhaps.

In any case, Christians were there for a while, but they were overcome by the sweep of Islam across the area well over a millennium ago. Muslims have long been, and are, overwhelmingly dominant in the country.

Current Christian presence dates itself to Italy’s treaty with Afghanistan in 1921. As part of the deal, Italy opened an embassy in Kabul, and it wanted a Catholic chaplain, and chapel, to serve the Italians employed by the embassy.

A little chapel opened in the embassy in 1921, and Italian priests came to staff it. Pope Pius XI, in 1933, sent a priest from Italy as the papal representative, but the chapel was the country’s only Catholic church, and priests engaged by the embassy were the only priests in Afghanistan, none of them a native of the country.

No diocese was formed, and Afghanistan has never had formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai attended Pope St. John Paul II’s funeral in Rome in 2005 and congratulated the new pope, Benedict XVI, when he was elected. It surely suggested no hard feelings, but neither did it bring a rush of Catholicism into the country.

Afghanistan borders Pakistan and Iran, and several former Soviet states, which have embassies at the Holy See and established Christian communities.

On repeated occasions, foreign powers have militarily seized Afghanistan — not the best way to make friends. The Soviets came in 1979 and did not leave until 1989. They hardly brought Catholicism with them, but in Muslim minds, they represented traditional Europe.

(President Jimmy Carter loudly denounced the Soviet invasion. The United States, and dozens of other countries, boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow because of it. It changed Soviet policy not in the least. Afghans remember the Soviet invasion and occupation. It was big news. People forget.)

Americans, and NATO allies, entered the country in 2001 to put down the terrorist effort that had caused such death and destruction on Sept. 11, 2001. Many of these soldiers were Christians. Many were Catholics. Chaplains came to serve them.

Informally also came Christian, and Catholic, organizations to bring relief to the Afghan people — chronically poor and harmed by all the turmoil the country has experienced.

By and large, people serving in these organizations are exiting the country at present. They hopefully left a worthy image for themselves, and for Christianity, in the minds of many Afghans, but they were, and are, Christians. So were Christian troops. They are not Muslims.

Christians live by a totally different culture and set of values. This interplay has happened elsewhere, at times without producing utter hatred for things and persons Christian, but historically, Muslims and Christians have fought, often to the death. Leaders of both sides deplore this history, but feelings are still sharp.

Afghanistan’s Taliban, with its heavy upper hand, is radically Muslim, of a special variety of Islam, very fervent, very “radical” in its approach, and utterly unyielding. “Take no prisoners,” literally.

Intense religious fervor is not unique to the Taliban. It occurs elsewhere today, in Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism, admittedly all very unlike the more violent Taliban. Overall, it shows unhappiness with lukewarm religion and with the growing, casual attitude about religion.

Other Afghan Muslims disagree with the Taliban’s strict reading of Muslim theology. The world is watching a struggle for control unfold now as the Taliban, often by force, or at least by strong pressure, overtakes everything in the country.

Let us pray for peace.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.

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