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KABUL-SHEPHERD Jul-27-2009 (810 words) xxxi

Lone priest shepherds tiny flock of Catholics in Afghanistan

By Jessica Weinstein
Catholic News Service

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNS) -- In the midst of the escalating war in Afghanistan, there is a place of peace for Kabul's tiny Catholic population.

Inside the Italian Embassy compound visitors will find a small white building marked simply with a cross. Its guardian is the shepherd of Kabul, Barnabite Father Giuseppe Moretti.

A warm 70-year-old Italian with graying hair and a sharp sense of humor, Father Moretti is the only priest in Afghanistan.

"Our presence is the presence of the master's seed," he said in an interview with Catholic News Service.

Father Moretti first arrived in Afghanistan in 1977, two years before an invasion by the former Soviet Union touched off a generation of fighting. When the war between the Soviets and the Afghan Muslim fighters known as mujahedeen ended in 1982, it was quickly followed by a civil war that raged throughout the 1990s. In 1994, the embassy was attacked and Father Moretti was shot. He survived, but he left the country.

After American forces drove the Taliban, a Sunni Muslim fundamentalist religious and political movement, from Kabul in 2001, Pope John Paul II asked Father Moretti to return.

"It was my duty as shepherd to stay with my flock," he said.

According to the Vatican, there are just 250 Catholics in Afghanistan. Father Moretti said about 150 people regularly attend Mass inside the embassy. All are members of the international community.

At a July 22 evening Mass, 10 nuns from three different orders took part in worship and received Communion.

Sister Chantal de Jesus, a member of the Sisters of Jesus in France, came to Afghanistan in 1955, bringing a team of nurses to the hospital in Kabul.

"They treat us quite well here," she said.

"They know us as Christians. We're well-accepted, even wearing the cross," said Sister Martina, a member of the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Blessed Mother Teresa.

Sister Martina's order is one of the most recent to arrive, beginning its ministry in 2007. Because of its work with mentally handicapped children and widows, the order's accreditation was approved quickly by the Afghan government.

The need in Kabul is great. According to the United Nations World Food Program, more than two-thirds of the population lives in poverty.

"Many are widows," said Sister Martina in a thick Irish brogue. "They live in terrible conditions and the landlord throws them out during the winter. Many have five to eight children.

"We help with rent and food distribution," she added.

But the Catholic presence is limited to aid workers. Afghanistan is explicitly Muslim. Preaching Christianity is strictly forbidden.

Sister Fortunata, a member of the Missionaries of Charity and native of Rwanda, teaches a literacy class for teenage girls. She had begun translating the Quran, the sacred book of Islam, from Arabic into the local languages to help the women with their studies. But after learning that three people had been executed for doing the same thing, she stopped.

"They did enjoy it (while it lasted). It was a way to speak about God," she said.

"We can communicate the main principles of living a good life, but we can't talk about Jesus," Sister Martina said.

"Our presence here is the presence of the mustard seed," Father Moretti said. "Our testimony is the silent testimony of our life and our works."

For the Italian priest, much of that work centers on stoking the spiritual fervor of the faithful. He recalled that Gen. Dan McNeil, former commander of U.S. forces and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, was among the regular Mass attendees. An autographed photograph of the two men adorns the hallway of the rectory.

But Father Moretti lamented that many Catholics among the international community in Kabul do not attend Mass. Even the Muslims notice, he said.

"The Afghan people are believers, and they respect a lot people who profess another religion, not only in word, but in action," he said.

Father Moretti recalled how much it spoke to the Afghan workers at the embassy when Catholics started trickling into Mass after the Taliban fell.

"For two years, the Mass on Sunday was empty," he said, "and I remember our Afghan workers said to me, 'Father, they are unbelievers.'"

"Now, when they saw the church full of people, with joy they said, 'Father, there are so many people and they are happy.' This is the feeling of the Afghan people about religion," Father Moretti said.

Now, as U.S. soldiers pour into Afghanistan and the country prepares for its second presidential election, Afghans are rebuilding their lives.

After having seen so much upheaval during his tenure, Father Moretti is very cautious when he speaks about the future of Afghanistan.

"We hope. Our dream is peace, real peace, and if there is peace, there is democracy. Democracy in Afghanistan is a hard journey," he said.

END


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This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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