Mass Celebrated Again in Afghan Capital

A Low-Key Event in Church Annexed to Italian Embassy

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KABUL, Afghanistan, JAN. 27, 2002 ( The Mass returned to Kabul today, after a nine-year absence.

At 3 p.m. local time, Franciscan Father Ivan Lai, chaplain of the Italian military contingent, presided over the long-awaited eucharistic celebration in the little church annexed to the Italian Embassy.

The congregation comprised soldiers of the International Assistance Force for Security in Afghanistan — Italians, French and British — as well as foreign humanitarian workers.

The chapel was pillaged several times in the past, when the mujahedin captured Kabul. It was only the care of an old Afghan watchman that preserved it from total neglect, at a time when the Taliban forced Christians into oblivion or flight.

The chaplain placed some of the ruins that he found in the chapel at the foot of a wooden cross in the embassy garden. Among the items was a crown of thorns which had belonged to a stolen crucifix.

The last Catholic priest believed to have offered Mass in Afghanistan was Father Giuseppe Moretti, who had to leave the country after he was severely wounded in a 1993 bombing raid.

The chapel is a simple cement building from the 1950s. «It is the only church in Afghanistan, although on Italian territory,» said Domenico Giorgi, an official of the Italian Embassy.

The only nuns who stayed were the Little Sisters of Jesus (disciples of Charles de Foucauld). In order to receive the Eucharist, they often endured exhausting and dangerous journeys to Pakistan and even to Tajikistan.

The nuns visited the embassy´s chapel almost every Sunday. It has a fresco depicting St. Francis of Assisi´s meeting with the Sultan of Egypt.

«An atmosphere of celebration has been created around this Mass, but it is a meeting that we wish to approach with discretion,» the Italian military chaplain told the Misna missionary agency. «In no way do we wish to wound the sensitivities of the Muslim population.»

Italy is the only nation in Afghanistan that has the privilege of having a Catholic priest among the diplomatic personnel, who serves as chaplain to the international community.

The figure of the «foreigners´ chaplain» is integral to the 1933 bilateral treaty signed between Afghanistan and Italy. Since 1921, religious of the Italian Congregation of Barnabites, such as Father Moretti, have gone to Afghanistan to serve Catholics in Kabul.

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