US troop withdrawal poses new challenges to Afghanistan’s Christians

Mass for U.S. military personnel at a forward operating base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Dec. 23, 2001 Mass for U.S. military personnel at a forward operating base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Dec. 23, 2001. | U.S. Navy photo by chief photographer's mate Johnny Bivera (Public Domain).

As the U.S. is winding down its operations in Afghanistan after 20 years, there is much concern about the situation of the Church in the country. There is only one Catholic church in Afghanistan, located in the Italian embassy in Kabul, and consequently shut down as long as the embassy remained closed during the pandemic.

Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution defined the country as an Islamic republic. It is forbidden to preach the Gospel in public or to convert to Christianity.

This is the reason why missionaries and Catholics in Afghanistan rarely speak on the record: they apply some necessary prudence in a challenging environment. CNA spoke with them and agreed to their requests for anonymity.

In 2002, Pope John Paul II established a mission sui iuris, or independent mission, in Afghanistan serving some 210 Catholics with three priests.

But there are other missionaries in Afghanistan. The Jesuits entered the country in 2004 and set education as one of their primary goals. The Missionaries of Charity came that same year to provide humanitarian assistance in the war-torn country.

The U.S. decision to leave Afghanistan opens the way for the return of the Taliban, posing new challenges for the country’s Christians.

According to local sources, it isn’t easy to describe the current situation in Afghanistan. But sources say that “beyond the waged war, there is seemingly an information war. Both of the conflicting parties claim their successes, and in both cases, it is hard to assess them.”

The sources note that Western media tend to say that the Taliban are regaining territory and influence. At the same time, Afghan government officials claim that all the districts that fell into the Taliban’s hands were rescued.

Yet the Catholic community will not leave unless it is “obliged to.” Local Catholics underscore that their mission in the territory began long before U.S. troops arrived in Afghanistan.

For example, the Barnabite Fathers went to Afghanistan in 1934, and this is why it was natural to entrust the mission sui iuris to them. They will certainly stay in the country as long as they are permitted to, looking out any for possible openings

One of these openings might be the Taliban’s reported intention to ask for and accept the help of everyone to rebuild Afghanistan, NGOs included. This would not exclude Catholic NGOs, which would be a sign of hope.

But the most problematic scenario is that Afghanistan will get trapped in civil war. The scenario is furtherly complicated by as yet unverified rumors that foreign jihadists are moving to the country.

Local Catholics have no other hope than that the neighboring countries -- Russia, China, Pakistan, India, and Iran -- will help Afghanistan in its transition, as “it is their interest that Afghanistan remains peaceful.”

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