01-05-2012 - Traces, n. 5


Pastor in KABUL
The Taliban has resumed its attacks, to remind the world that its power is still strong. In the West, the doubt arises once more: was it worth it? We asked the only Catholic priest who is (officially) present in Afghanistan.

by Emanuele Braga

“What kind of wind is blowing? Calmer, thanks. The tension remains, but no bombs today. There’s traffic, people around. Life has returned to a normal rhythm, Taliban permitting.” Father Giuseppe Moretti, from Recanati, Italy, is a 73-year-old Barnabite and the pastor of Kabul. In fact, he is the “pastor of Afghanistan,” because his jurisdiction as ecclesiastic superior of the Missio sui iuris instituted here in 2002 covers the entire country. He is the only priest officially present in the capital (“there are a few Jesuits, but they work for the NGOs”), and he is responsible for the church in the Italian embassy, a chapel with about 100 seats in the compound on Great Massoud Road. Inside, there are light-colored walls, a large table depicting with Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Francis of Assisi meeting the sultan, two paintings–of the Annunciation and the Baptism of Jesus–and a smaller chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Divine Providence (“Pius XI entrusted us to her, when he sent the Barnabites here”). And there is a crucifix set on a blue background, above a passage of the missal that seems to have been written especially for this country: “Da propitius Domine pacem in diebus nostris,” “Lord, grant peace in our days.”
These are tough days in Afghanistan, more so than usual. On April 16th, the Taliban launched its “spring offensive”–bombs, attacks, and kamikazes in four cities, including the capital. There were 18 hours of strife and 47 deaths (36 assailants, 8 soldiers, 3 civilians), ambushes in the streets, and mortars falling here and there on the military bases in the rest of the country. It is sufficient to make the world understand that, after 10 years of war, and while the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is withdrawing (the last troops of the alliance will leave in 2014), Taliban power is still strong–strong enough to reinforce the doubt that has been lingering for some time among Western governments and militaries: was it worth it? And what will Afghanistan be like afterward?
“The disappointment is there, it’s obvious,” says Fr. Moretti. “We expected more from these 10 years. If only all of the money that came in had been invested in really fixing up the country: schools, hospitals, roads–the essential structures of a democracy...” And that didn’t happen? “Not much. It went mostly to strengthening the army. But an army has to defend democracy; if there isn’t a democracy, what is the army good for?” Have the people’s lives changed? “I wouldn’t say ‘changed’–it sounds too nice. There are benefits, of course. Those who had the good fortune to find work in the embassies, or in the military organization, are in good shape now. But there are not many of them. And outside of the cities, there’s nothing.” This is also how the Westerners and the Karzai government lose support, while the Taliban gains it...“Look, a few days ago, when Karzai spoke of ‘my Taliban brothers,’ some Afghans that I know said to me: ‘His brothers, not ours.’ They don’t forget. And there is a growing intolerance toward the foreigners. The truth is that the Afghans don’t want a country ruled by others. And 10 years of foreign presence are starting to feel like a lot.”

A small flock. Fr. Moretti has no direct contact with the soldiers (“the bases are far away and have their own chaplains”), even if the tension in the air where they are “comes to these parts, too, and how.” But the care of the flock here is up to Fr. Moretti. The Catholics of Kabul are a small population, “tiny, like the first Christians in the catacombs.” The Afghanistan entry in the Pontifical Yearbook reports that there are 200 baptized faithful in the population of 22 million. But the most realistic unit of measure is Mass attendance. “Up until a couple of years ago, the church was full: 110-120 people. Now it’s half that.” And almost all of them are foreign officials: “Asians, Latin Americans, Africans. Very few Europeans. The indifference toward faith is felt here, too.” And the Afghans? “They couldn’t even come in.”
Fr. Moretti is not the only religious, however. There are 13 nuns with him. There is a house of Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity. There is also an “intercongregational community” that works for the Kabul Associazione pro bambini (Association for Children): “Born after an appeal of John Paul II on Christmas 2001, it takes care of children with brain damage.” And there are Charles de Foucauld’s Little Sisters, present here since 1953. “They were the first to come and have always remained. They suffered a lot, especially during the Soviet domination. Now there are four of them: two are retired, one works in pediatrics, and the other at the mental hospital for women.” The eldest, Mother Chantal, from France, has been here since the beginning. But Kabul was another world back then, as it was in 1977, when Fr. Moretti arrived for the first time. He had taught in Florence, then had served as Vicar General of his congregation in Rome. “But I had the idea of going to Afghanistan even as a young man, in the seminary. We used to write to our missionaries abroad, and I wrote to the one in Kabul.” Why? “Who knows? But God doesn’t do anything randomly. I had studied a little English, and so when the chaplain who was here came home for awhile, they asked me if I wanted to take his place. I said yes.” He was 39 at the time. “The country was at peace. I could go around, see things. Kabul was not the inhuman fortress that it is now. I fell in love with it. And I told myself: to understand it, you have to change your mentality, become a little like them. This takes time.”

A hermit’s life. He came and went many times, then returned to stay exactly 10 years ago, in May 2002. “My daily life? It’s like that of a hermit, or a monk–you decide. I pray and I study, I study and I pray. I say Mass. I meet the communities of nuns. Relations with the Afghans? They are few and formal. Getting around has become a problem. ” What do you see when you go out? “Aside from the state employees, I see people who get by, who live on crafts and trade. If they have a small piece of land, they try to get the most out of it. And, in the city at least, they use cell phones and watch Al Jazeera on TV.” How do they look at you? “It depends. Even the Afghans who work here have changed. Before, they had a certain amount of veneration for a ‘man of God.’ The young people no longer have it. But I’m not at all depressed. If times are like this, you have to live them. In everything, either you see the will of God and are serene, or you see only your own will. And in that case, it’s better to leave.” He stays. He is a witness to events that are perhaps small, but that here have a different weight–like the marine who starts coming to church and, after awhile, touched by the Liturgy, requests Baptism (“the first was named John, and it happened two more times”). Or the official who comes to confession in tears “after decades, because what he saw here shook him too much. Witnessing events like this is everything for me. It’s enough. I don’t know what to expect. But I think that the Lord is happy. I am here for this.” Did you expect something different when you arrived? “No. Maybe a greater presence of Westerners in church. I often ask: how can an Afghan feel curious enough to approach Christianity when he sees how certain Christians live their faith?”
And outside of the compound? “I was the chaplain in two different American camps, and from time to time I go to Tangi Kalai, 12 miles from here.” Why? “The ‘School of Peace’ is there. It was a dream that I brought with me from Italy. I was a principal in Italy; here, I saw immediately what the situation was like in the schools, under the Russians.” He got to work, collecting money from many common people. And thus he was able to ask an architect friend to put together a project, which he tried to realize in 1990, “but they told me that the situation ‘was not such that could guarantee its subsistence.’” Then, some time ago, the soldiers asked him to accompany them to a village where they had to render veterinary assistance. “I got there, and I saw that there wasn’t a school. The idea was rekindled.”

The mullah of the others. Now the school is there, new, with room for 1,800 students from elementary to high school. There are classrooms, computers, and Afghan programs, because it is a state school: “We are only the benefactors.” The classes are co-ed until 3rd grade, “then a dogmatic division and separate hallways. The girls are the future and the problem of the country. At 14, they are already at a marriageable age. In order to convince the families to let them study, we established some scholarships.” What do the students say to you? “A few words about Italy, soccer, Ferraris. It’s difficult to really talk. They are very respectful; they stand when I enter. But for them, I am the mullah of the others.”
The pastor, to be precise. What has Fr. Moretti learned from being pastor in Kabul? “That Christ is not a platitude; He is a fact. Now I see it. And that we are like a mustard seed. God has sown it. We try to make it grow.”