Cremona (AsiaNews) "It will take a long time, but people want democracy," said Father Angelo Panicati, for years the only Catholic priest in Kabul. He is certain that democracy and freedom are feasible in Afghanistan, but will not be easy to achieve. The 78-year-old Barnabite Father was in Kabul from 1964 and 1990 as an Italian diplomat and the priest to the only Catholic parish church in the country (the chapel in the Italian Embassy). He was also the last Westerner thrown out by the Talebans.
In an interview with AsiaNews, Father Angelo spoke about the first democratic elections in a country whose people are still close to his heart. He spoke about the chances of religious freedom and reminisced about "his" Afghanistan, a place once "tolerant and peaceful".
"What's encouraging is that democracy and freedom are part of Afghan culture. An element of representative democracy already existed in an embryonic form. For example, the Council of Elders is a highly respected institution with each tribe electing its own representative."
"But Afghans want democracy also to reassert their independence and proud identity. They are a tolerant people and this tolerance to what is different is rooted in their culture."
As the only Catholic priest allowed in the country, Father Panigati remembers his life there.
"I could perform my duties without problems as long as I did not proselytise. Locals were curious about our religion and related to it with great respect. Many Afghans attended our functions in the Embassy chapel. When I celebrated communions or weddings, they came as friends or acquaintances. Often they would help me set up the crèche for Christmas. And I, too, was invited to their traditional events such as choosing a newborn's name, something important there."
According to the Barnabite father, who now lives in Cremona, "everything changed with the Soviet invasion (in 1979)."
"People took up arms to join the resistance and tribes that once lived side by side in peace started fighting each other. Out of this emerged the Talebans, first as mercenaries, then as religious fighters eventually becoming the most fanatic defenders of religion."
"Before the invasion there were 5,000 women studying in Kabul and they would go out without the burqa. But as the invaders poured in there was renewed interest into the past as a way to reassert one's identity. Traditions such as wearing the burqa were revived."
Father Panigati is convinced that the Talebans are a memory that Afghans want to forget. "The population is tired of violence and is starting to react. The power of these criminals has diminished even if it is still strong in some areas like Kandahar, which in my opinion is the most fanatical city in the world."
For Kabul's former parish priest, Saturday's election was "a step forward towards a better Afghanistan" but it is not without dangers one of which is divisiveness.
"Tribalism remains strong in the country and the various ethnic groups have become more self-aware. If this is not handled intelligently, there is a danger that each tribe will see the new parliament as a place where to foster their own narrow interests. Unfortunately, some ethnic groups do not see democracy as an end in itself but rather as a means to pursue their own interests hoping to grab more power and control after the elections."
Whoever comes out winner must make sure that the new government is inclusive and includes all sections in parliament.
"The Pashtuns are the largest group (to which Hamid Karzai belongs) and should pull back a bit and give more space to other communities like the Tajiks and the Hazara (both Persian-speaking Shiites) from the central regions of the country, which have traditionally exerted little power."
"It will also be important to contain some criminals who might end up in the new government. Someone like Dostum, (a presidential candidate) whom I saw kill people in the streets".
Father Panigati ends by expressing his hope that "over time" religious freedom might also come to Afghanistan. "Interacting with foreigners will be important both inside and outside the country developing relations with Pakistan and India for instance but the journey will be long and hard".
There are 48,000 mosques in Afghanistan. For 70 years, there was and still is only one Catholic church in the country, the chapel inside the Italian Embassy in Kabul. The Missio sui iuris created by John Paul II in 2002 is led today by Fr Giuseppe Moretti. It is planning among other things to build a school for Afghan children on the outskirts of Kabul. According to Aid to the Church in need 2004 report on religious freedom, the presence of Catholic missioners has increased in the last few years.
Muslims constitute 98 per cent of Afghanistan's total population.