Lone Priest Shepherds Tiny Afghan Flock

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 with a cross. Its guardian is the shepherd of Kabul, Giuseppe Moretti, C.R.S.P.

A 70-year-old Italian with graying hair and a sharp sense of humor, Moretti is the only priest ministering to Catholics in Afghanistan, considered a mission territory by the church. "Our presence here is the presence of the mustard seed," said Moretti, a Barnabite priest. "Our testimony is the silent testimony of our life and our works."

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According to the Vatican, there are just 250 Catholics in Afghanistan; the number does not include those serving in the military. About 150 people regularly attend Mass inside the embassy, Moretti said. All are members of the international community.

Moretti first arrived in Afghanistan in 1977, two years before an invasion by the former Soviet Union. When the war between the Soviets and Afghan Muslim fighters ended in 1982, it was quickly followed by a civil war that raged through the 1990s. In 1994, the Italian embassy was attacked and Moretti was shot. He survived, but left the country. After American forces drove the Taliban from Kabul in 2001, Pope John Paul II asked Moretti to return. "It was my duty as shepherd to stay with my flock," Moretti said.

Sister Martina of the Missionaries of Charity is a more recent arrival to Afghanistan. Her order began ministering to mentally handicapped children and widows in 2007. Because of the need for such work the order’s accreditation was approved quickly by the Afghan government.

The United Nations World Food Program reports that more than two-thirds of the Afghan population lives in poverty. "Many are widows," said Sister Martina. "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."

Catholic presence in Afghanistan is limited to aid workers. Afghanistan is explicitly Muslim, and 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 once worked with her class to translate the Quran from Arabic, but stopped after learning that three people had been executed for similar activity. "[The students] did enjoy it,” she said. “It was a way to speak about God."

For Moretti, much of his work centers on stoking the spiritual fervor of the faithful. He laments that many Catholics among the international community in Kabul do not attend Mass. Still attendance has risen since the days when the Taliban was in power. "For two years, the Mass on Sunday was empty," Moretti said.

Today the country is still in flux. The government is still tallying votes from the presidential election in August and charges of electoral fraud are widespread. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is debating whether to send in more troops to fight a resurgent Taliban. After witnessing so much upheaval in his ministry, Moretti is cautious when speaking about the future of his adopted country: "We hope. Our dream is peace, real peace, and if there is peace, there is democracy. Democracy in Afghanistan is a hard journey."

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