Afghanistan, The Catholic Church in

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A landlocked, mountainous country in south-central Asia, the Islamic State of Afghanistan is bounded on the north by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, on the northeast by China, on the east and south by Pakistan, and on the west by Iran. Although the region is crossed by several fertile river valleys, rugged terrain to the north, frequent earthquakes, expanding desert areas to the south, and an arid climate punctuated with violent rains have done little to aid Afghan natives in advancing beyond subsistence farming or the raising of sheep and goats. Crops include wheat, barley, and fruit and nuts; deposits of iron ore, coal, copper, natural gas, and oil provide the region with some natural resources. While the economy was devastated by years of civil war at the end of the 20th century, the production of opium poppies and narcotics trafficking did provide the economy with a stabilizing source of revenue.

The country, known in ancient times as Aryana or Khorasan, was first conquered by Alexander the Great, then formed part of the Kingdom of Bactria c. 150 b. c. Persia and India later influenced Afghanistan, which was overrun by islam in the 7th century a. d. Political unity was achieved in 1747 under the Arab leader Ahmad Shah. Great Britain gained control over Afghan foreign affairs in 1879 as a way of controlling the Khyber Pass, a strategic trade route between India and Asia. At the end of World War I, on Aug. 19, 1919, the country achieved complete independence from Britain, and was governed by a constitutional monarchy until 1973. After 1973 a series of military governments formed a dependency on Soviet military assistance which culminated in the December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR. However, Soviet forces were forced to withdraw on Feb. 15, 1989, a result of U. S. and Arab backing of the armed resistance of Islamic Mujahidin rebels. The fragmented region gradually fell under the control of various political factions, the most powerful of which were the Islamic Taliban fundamentalists, who declared victory over both the communists and the Mujahidin in 1996. In 1999 the Taliban drafted a new constitution based on Islamic law.

The Christian Church in Afghanistan. There is a tradition that the Apostles Thomas and Bartholomew first brought Christianity to this region. Mention is made of the Diocese of Herat, which existed in the 5th century and which was a metropolitan see in the 6th, 10th, and 11th centuries. Christian communities, largely Nestorian, flourished in Afghan cities located along caravan routes, but they eventually disappeared. Balkh, in the northern section, served as an important mission center from whence Christians of the Syrian rite spread the faith to China. Jesuit missionaries came to Kabul in the 17th century, but the number of conversions within this predominately Muslim country was small.

After 1932 a Barnabite priest was attached to the Italian embassy and resident in Kabul, the capital. After the government fell into the hands of Islamic fundamentialists in the late 20th century, Christian missionaries were forbidden to proselytize, their presence in Afghanistan only tolerated because of their willingness to provide humanitarian aid. While Catholic chaplains from Pakistan regularly visited Afghanistan, their purpose was only to minister to the few Catholic non-residents living in the country while engaged in technical work. In 1999 non-Muslims were ordered to mark their homes with a yellow cloth placed on the rooftop, and to identify themselves with yellow clothing so that they might be avoided by Muslims. In January 2001 Taliban government leader Mullah Mohammad Omar announced that conversion to Christianity was punishable by death, the government's reaction to reports that aid workers had engaged in missionary activity proscribed by Afghan law. Church officials around the world were alarmed not only by the lack of religious freedom in Afghanistan, but also by the increasing repression of all Afghan citizens, and in particular women, who were being gradually excluded from public life. In response, in February of 2001, Pope John Paul II cited the "grave humanitarian crisis" taking place in Afghanistan, and encouraged human rights organizations to continue their attempts to aid the Afghan people. But in August 2001, eight Christian aid workers were charged by the Taliban with spreading Christianity in the fundamentalist Muslim country and imprisoned.

Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, the international community gave the United States government its full backing to pursue military action against the Taliban government and the Al Qaeda terrorist network that operated out of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda being held responsible for the September 11 attacks.

On November 14, 2001, as coalition and anti-Taliban forces swept across the country, US forces freed the eight Christian aid workers from a location outside Kabul and moved them to safety into Pakistan, and then on to their individual countries.

With the collapse of the Taliban and the installation of Hamid Karzai as the interim leader of a new Afghan coalition government in 2002, it was hoped that Afghan people might return to a life of greater intellectual freedom, religious freedom and tolerance as they moved forward in the 21st century.

Bibliography: k. s. latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity (New York 193745). Bilan du monde 2:2324.

[l. mascarenhas]