05/27/2022, 11.34
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Fr. Scalese: 'It's time to go back to Afghanistan'

by Chiara Zappa

For the head of the Afghan Missio sui iuris, "the world is forgetting the country, which is in a desperate condition". While the Jesuits aim to restart their activities, the only church - located in the capital - has not been touched. Italian cooperation operates from Pakistan, "we need to reopen in Kabul".

Milan (AsiaNews) - Ten months after the return of the Taliban to Kabul, "the world is forgetting about Afghanistan". This is the warning delivered to AsiaNews by Fr Giovanni Scalese, head of the Missio sui iuris in the country, who fled last August with the last remaining Catholics and who today raises the opportunity to "find ways to restore the international presence, starting with that of Italian cooperation".

The 66-year-old missionary, referent of the tiny Afghan Church since 2014, belongs to the Barnabite congregation, which was entrusted in 1933 with the custody of the only Catholic place of worship, located inside the Italian embassy.

Father Scalese, what has become of that church today?

"Right now it is empty, since practically all the faithful who used to go there, foreigners who were in Kabul for work or service reasons, in the months before the Taliban occupation of the capital had left. In fact, I was pleased to learn that some UN workers, among whom a good number used to visit the community, have recently returned, but our embassy currently operates from Doha, Qatar. Its representatives on site have however confirmed to us that the church is safe, in the condition in which we left it: no one has touched it in recent months'.

And what about the Catholic community? Has anyone returned, perhaps among the religious?

"The Jesuits, who run the Jesuit Refugee Service in Kabul, are thinking of reopening their activities, naturally in a gradual manner and observing the necessary security measures. The only way is to ask for visas as social workers: the Taliban government seems favourable to a return of those who were engaged in the service of the population, given that today the people are in dire straits. The situation regarding nuns is more complicated: for the current regime, the presence of single women is not tolerable. I know that one of them was told: 'Of course you can come back, as long as you get married!'...".

What is current status of international cooperation agencies?

"As I was saying, some United Nations offices have reopened, while Italian cooperation is currently operating from Pakistan: I am convinced that having a presence on the ground again would be very important to affect a tragic humanitarian situation, made worse by the freezing of Afghan deposits in foreign banks. People are struggling to survive and looking for any possible way out'.

What will you do?

"The decision depends on the Holy See. It is true that, unlike the clerics I mentioned, my visa has always been diplomatic, and there would be no point in granting it as long as the Italian embassy remains closed. However, the issue must be addressed, and I have spoken openly about it with the Vatican representatives. During the first meeting of the Episcopal Conference of Central Asian bishops, held last month in Kazakhstan, Cardinal Tagle, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, connected with us, and I took the opportunity to urge him: 'Your Eminence, shouldn't we start talking about Afghanistan again?'".

At the same meeting, you asked for the Afghan Church to be formally represented in the Central Asian Bishops' Conference: why?

"There I was invited to represent a mission that, although it is officially prevented at the moment, is an existing ecclesial reality and I think it is significant that it can have a voice. From experience, moreover, I know how isolated one can feel and how important it is to be part of a broader network, which is not intended to be a bureaucratic institution but an instrument of human and Christian communion".

In Nursultan, you also discussed the September visit of Pope Francis to Kazakhstan, on the occasion of the Congress of Globqal and Traditional Religions: do you think it will be an opportunity to re-establish dialogue also with the Russian Orthodox Church?

"Russia still considers the former Soviet countries as its canonical territory. And although in reality they present an interesting plurality today - in Kazakhstan for example there are also Eastern Catholic Churches, including the Ukrainian one - Francis will certainly have the opportunity to meet local representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate. Let us hope that they will be fruitful meetings'. 

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