JESUITS MAKING AN IMPACT IN AFGHANISTAN
A land of riddles, Afghanistan has a rich and varied cultural heritage. Mountainous and landlocked, its development has been crippled due to the many contending ethnic, religious and regional rivalries. The Pashtuns, Taziks, Uzbeks and Hazaras have been in constant conflict for supremacy, causing disunity and instability in the land. Politically, Afghanistan has had a turbulent and tumultuous history, having been overrun by a succession of invading armies. More recently, it has been devastated by proxy wars and the fight against terrorism.
Being predominantly Muslim (98.9%), Islamic traditions permeate every aspect of its social and cultural life. It is a male-dominated society, where women do not have a voice. It depends on the neighbouring countries for even basic necessities, as it has no industries of its own. The educational system is in a shambles and in need of serious reform. Years of war and ethnic rivalries have stunted its development and crippled progress, be it in politics, economics or education. The country plummeted to the deepest abyss during the Taliban regime. However, against all these daunting odds, Afghanistan is bravely struggling to rebuild its infrastructure, social, economic, educational and political systems, with the help of the NATO and the US peace-keeping forces, and with the assistance of numerous international NGOs.
1. The Only Catholic Church in Afghanistan
“One Magi came from the East, the tradition reminds us. So I’m sure that the star that brings to Bethlehem has appeared again above the sky”, said Fr.Moretti, the Mission Superior of the Independent Mission of Afghanistan, during his satellite telephonic interview to Avvenire, an Italian newspaper, from his office at the Italian Embassy. He talked about the important progress of the Church in Afghanistan, a land considered in the West only as a land of Islam and of the of the Talibans.
Fr.Moretti, a Barnabite from Italy, is responsible of the ‘missio sui iuris’ in Afghanistan (missions that have a status of special autonomy, depending directly on the Holy See), created on May 16th, 2002. He is the only priest allowed in the country to celebrate Mass in the chapel inside the Italian Embassy.
“About a few years ago, there were only 10 to 15 persons for Sunday Mass but now there is a community of about 130 to 150 for Mass, on Sundays”, said Fr.Moretti.
Legend suggests that St.Thomas preached in Bactria (Balk Province), in northern Afghanistan. The Nestorians planted Christianity here and there have been nine bishops and dioceses in the region. But this early establishment of the Church was overcome by the Muslim conquest in the 7th century.
Italy was the first country to recognize Afghanistan’s independence in 1919 and the Afghan government asked Italy how it could thank her. Rome requested the right to build a chapel, which was then being requested by international technicians then living in the Afghan capital. A clause giving Italy the right to build a chapel within its embassy was included in the Italian-Afghan treaty of 1921, and that same year the Barnabites arrived to start giving pastoral care. In the 1950’s, the simple cemented chapel was finished. This chapel in the Italian Embassy is the only functioning chapel in the whole of the country. Projects of the new mission include a ‘Peace School’ for 500 students that began construction in August 2003 and will be at ‘European Standards’.
2. The Valuable Presence of Religious Nuns
Little Sisters of Jesus started their work here in 1955. Sr.Miriam, a Swiss, has been working as a nurse in the Aliabadh Government Hospital, Kabul for the past 33 years. Sr. Santhal, a French, 80 years old, has been serving here for the past fifty years. In appreciation of their wonderful yeoman service, the present Afghan government has given them citizenship and they are the only two Afghan Catholics so far. Sr.Catherine, a Japanese, has been here for the past 27 years and is working as a nurse in the Indira Gandhi Hospital for children in Kabul. They also work with those who have mental disabilities in the capital city, teaching those with cerebral palsy how to go to the bathroom and how to eat without help.
Members from the Missionaries of Charity, had their house blessed on May 9th, 2006, and have already started taking in street children. The head of the NGOs department of the Ministry of Economy has suggested to them to open more such centres for children in future.
There is also an intercongregational community of the Association PBK (Pro Bambini-Kabul), which includes nuns from the Dominicans and the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM). They have been catering to the needs of the slow learners in Kabul in the age group of 6 to 14.
The Jesuits of South Asian Assistancy landed in Herat in May 2005 and started functioning officially from September 2005 after registration, under the banner of JRS (Jesuit Refugee Service), registered as an international NGO in Afghanistan, with the Ministry of Economy. JRS specially concentrates on the higher, secondary education and technical and vocational training.
The Catholic community in Afghanistan is mainly made of foreigners, especially aid workers, and no Afghans currently are part of the Church, mainly due to great social and legal pressure not to convert to non-Islamic religions.
Relations of the new democratic Government of Afghanistan with the Catholic Church have been positive, such as President Hamid Karzai attending Pope John Paul II’s funeral and congratulating Pope Benedict XVI on his election. The Nuncio of Pakistan visited Afghanistan in 2005 and said Mass in the Italian embassy chapel. The Catholic officials hope that official diplomatic ties and a public Catholic Church will be possible in future. Thus there is a ray of hope for further future collaboration between Christianity and Islam.
3. Catholic NGOs under Caritas Network Make a Difference
Delegation of the European Commission to Afghanistan, Press and Communication, Mr.Mario Ragazzi, an Italian, said, “Catholic NGOs in Afghanistan are secular, highly transparent and deeply committed to the cause and welfare of the poor here”.
The prominent Catholic NGOs, under the umbrella of CARITAS NETWORK are the following.
3.1. Catholic Relief Service (CRS)
Mr.Paul Hicks, an American and a Country Representative (CR) of CRS, narrating the evolution of CRS said, “CRS is the official overseas relief and development agency of US Catholic community. Founded in 1943 by the Catholic Bishops of the US, it works now in 99 countries around the world. Not only does CRS provide emergency relief, but also strives to break the cycle of poverty and helps communities become self-sufficient through long-term development programmes. Our organization is based on a solid foundation of the social teachings of the Catholic Church, but our mission is humanitarian”.
The South Asian Regional Director, based in New Delhi, Mr.Kevin Kartigan, who visited Afghanistan as part of his regular monitoring visits expressed his high satisfaction with the depth and quality of the work done by CRS here.
Dr. Sebastian Jayasuriya, Deputy Country Representative of CRS explained the activities of CRS in Afghanistan.
“CRS began supporting development efforts here in 1998 as a member of Caritas Network. In early 2002, CRS began direct operations here, opening offices in Kabul, Kandahar and Herat. From 2002 to 2004, CRS programmes focused on emergency assistance to returning refugees and extremely vulnerable populations through rural infrastructure projects (shelter, roads, water supply) cash for work projects and supply of material inputs to poor families, particularly tools for livelihood activities.
CRS is involved from 2004 onwards in development through greater emphasis on community mobilization in its infrastructure projects, expanding education programming rural areas, developing innovative market-oriented agriculture programme and initiating efforts in watershed development. Currently CRS employs 165 national staff, 10 international staff and provides support to 10 local NGO partners.
CRS has made its mission for promoting global solidarity tangible here. Its strategic plan focuses on poverty alleviation and human development in areas in western and central Afghanistan, with an emphasis on rural areas. It pioneers efforts to increase on-form and off-form income for rural and peri-urban households. It builds expertise in providing greater access to quality education for children (particularly girls), women and people with disabilities. Complementary activities include village libraries, early childhood education and vocation training. In addition to strengthening relationships with national partners and building their capacities on a long-term basis, CRS has invested lots of efforts in building the capacity of the national staff with specific attention to capacities of women.
3.2. Caritas Germany
Mr.Timo Christians is the CR of Caritas Germany. It is supporting Afghan NGOs in their humanitarian and development activities since 1984. Activities during the time of Taliban focused on education, especially for girls who were banned from schools but could receive lessons in mosques.
It is involved in three main strategic sectors of support in Afghanistan. While narrating the psychosocial activities, Mr.Timo said that since the end of 2004, it has trained 32 psychological counsellors, both male and female, with the help of Ms.Inge Missmahl, a German psychologist. After completing the training, it has opened 15 psychosocial counselling centres in different districts of Kabul and offers counselling to individuals and families who suffer from traumata, depression, family violence and other psychological problems.
The second sector is its assistance to partner organizations in the field of rehabilitation of drug addicts. It supports awareness activities and publications increasing the understanding of the population regarding drug use, HIV/AIDS and related issues.
While the activities in the social sectors aim to build up sustainable social structures with a long perspective, Caritas Germany’s emergency rehabilitation programmes focus on immediate relief for the most vulnerable with a geographical focus on the Province of Daikundi (next to Bamiyan Province) in the Central Highlands region. Besides the rehabilitation of rural infrastructure (cash for work programmes for the construction of schools, clinics and roads), it provides facilities for safe drinking water and drought relief.
In Kandahar, it implements emergency programmes in maternal health, providing medical support to IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) and pregnant or lactating women. It provides health services for tuberculosis and leprosy patients in 11 clinics in the Central Highlands.
3.3. Caritas Italiana
Mr. Luigi BIONDI, is the CR of Caritas Italiana which is involved in capacity building of the people through formal and non-formal education, besides conscientising them regarding human rights and peace education. It supports and provides funds for the intercongregational venture to take care of the underdeveloped children. It lends its support to the Afghan organization, HAWCA (Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children in Afghanistan). It looks after school care centres where students do their formal studies and receive awareness on peace, coexistence and human rights. It supports DPO (Disabled Peoples Organization) in Kabul.
3.4. Caritas Ireland
It is known as TROCAIRE, and is involved in:
a. peace building, conflict resolution and transformation
b. livelihood security for vulnerable populations
c. women empowerment and change of quality.
The aim of the peace building programme is to contribute to the promotion of peace through increasing communication, collaboration and capacity in peace building at community, district and provincial levels of society. Community and district level activities include establishing ‘peace groups’ in each community, conducting peace building workshops for community and district members, facilitating community micro projects and supporting grassroot conflict resolution forums.
Trocaire has supported the enhancement of the sustainable livelihood capacities of the rural poor by support skills training in horticulture and cottage industry. It plans to take up a programme to protect female victims of abuse from all over Afghanistan through shelter, basic needs and legal advice.
3.5. JRS (Jesuit Refugee Service)
CR of JRS, Fr.A.Santiago S.J, explained that JRS is involved in formal education, especially high school and university education with a special focus on quality education and vocational training and capacity building of agriculturists in Herat and Bamiyan provinces.
Little drops make a great ocean. Such collective efforts will go a long way in ushering in the total transformation of the people of the country towards the fullness of life.
4. Jesuits in the Reconstruction of Afghanistan
“The aim of the Jesuit Mission in Afghanistan is to accompany and assist the people in their endeavour to rebuild their devastated lives, society and nation. We understand our presence in this land as leaven in the dough – as catalysts enabling the local community to bring about a transformation for a brighter future”, said Fr.Hector D’Souza, Jesuit Provincial South Asia, while inaugurating the new Mission in Bamiyan on 15th May. He further added that reentering Afghanistan opens a new chapter in the history of the Jesuits of South Asia. It is God’s call anew to the service of faith and promotion of justice, a God-given opportunity to share the abundant blessings and resources of the South Asian Assistancy with a neighbour in great need.
The Jesuits have been working in Herat Province since 2005 and recently in Bamiyan Province also.
4.1. The Inception of this Initiative
The present Jesuit Outreach arose out of the worldwide desire to reach out to Afghanistan in its humanitarian crisis. The Jesuit Conference of South Asia (JCSA) proposed that the Jesuits of South Asia, as the largest Jesuit Assistancy and the one nearest to Afghanistan, should contribute its mite to this effort. Accordingly, the JCSA missioned Frs. Santiago S.J. of Andhra Jesuit Province, Stan Fernandes S.J., and Br. Noel, both from Pune Jesuit Province to start the JRS Afghanistan Outreach. Fr.Jermy and Sch.Anil joined them in August 2006. There are now five Jesuits in Herat, a very big Province in Afghanistan – a pledge of the Jesuits of South Asia to help in the process of rebuilding the nation.
Fr.Santiago, CR of JRS explained that the JRS Afghanistan Outreach is fully committed to the holistic development of the country, assisting and supporting it in its endeavours to reconstruct and its dreams of transformation to be a global, democratic and vibrant society. The Jesuits share the nation’s dream of transformation to become self-reliant in governance and economy, to make education relevant and innovative so as to give the nation hope for the future and bring the marginalized groups such as the Hazaras, the Kutchis, the women and children into the mainstream of development.
4.2. Jesuits’ Vision for the Nation
— to provide quality formal, non-formal and technical/ vocational education by organizing teacher-training programmes, upgrading library and lab facilities, supplying learning materials, arranging exposure and exchange programmes, spoken English courses, workshops/seminars in sciences and strengthening the educational infrastructure, with special focus on the marginalized groups of the society.
— to build bridges with Government officials, local leaders and policy makers, who guide the country into the future
— to join hands with like-minded NGOs to help accelerate progress and enhance the quality of service to the people
— to offer models for growth and development of the marginalized sections from our experience in India and other developing countries, adapting these to the context here
— to provide professional and technical support for the organization, mobilization and management of natural resources – linking up with the watershed development programme in India to renew the environment and rebuild the human community
— to arrange programmes to train farmers in improved farming, harvesting, preservation and marketing of agricultural products. This will help reduce the present import of even the daily common necessities from Iran or Pakistan, thus creating wealth within the country. Afghanistan produces a wide variety of delicious fruits – grapes, pomegranates, melons, apricots, peaches and pears. This invaluable resource needs to be systematically developed and managed
— to initiate a dialogue with Afghan intellectuals in the field of religion and culture. This could help in understanding and promoting customs and aspects of culture that enhance the genuine growth and development of the people. Such interaction can obviously be attempted only after winning the confidence of the people with devoted service over a long period and gaining a certain mastery over the local language and culture
— to foster a sense of unity and fraternity among the various social and ethnic groups of the land, especially through the ministry of education. Inspired by the vision of Isaiah: “The lion will lie down with the lamb”, our presence and ministry must lead to peace building, reconciliation and strengthening the bonds of brotherhood and unity
— to support organizations and movements working to give women a voice in society – to secure their rights and their dignity so that they can play a significant role in the progress of the country
— to involve Jesuit institutions and alumni associations in South Asia to provide personnel, expertise and resources in their areas of competence and thus help Afghanistan progress to sustainable peace and development
4.3. The Evolution of Jesuits’ Presence
The world, in its long history, has witnessed the rise and fall of innumerable movements, dynasties and nations that weave world history into a fascinating story. The Jesuit presence in Afghanistan too has an intriguing history with its royal beginnings, abrupt disappearance and gradual reappearance.
Fr. H.Heras, the renowned Bombay Jesuit historian, gives us a brief and interesting, history of the Jesuits in Afghanistan. It all began in 1581-82, when Fr. Antonio Montserrat, a Catalan Jesuit, accompanied the Mogul King Akbar’s military expedition to Kabul. Then in 1602, Brother Bento de Goes, a Portuguese Jesuit, starting from Agra, made his way through Lahore, Peshawar, Jalalabad and Kabul in search of a Christian kingdom called Cathay. The account of his long and arduous journey is found in the work of Fr. Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit pioneer missionary in China.
In 1626, Fr. Joseph de Castro, a friend of Emperor Jehangir, spent some time with the Imperial retinue in Kabul. Fr. Henry Roth, from Bavaria, travelled through Afghanistan in 1653 to join the Mogul Mission in India. After spending nine years in India, Fr. Roth returned to Europe in 1662 along with Fr. Grueber, a Chinese missionary, passing through Afghanistan once more.
Then in 1676, Fr. Gregorio Roiz, a Portuguese Jesuit, came from the Agra Mission to Afghanistan in the hope of ministering to ancient Christians in Kafiristan. In 1700, Fr. Antonio Magalhaes, a Portuguese Jesuit, was at Kabul for a short period to minister to the needs of the Christians in the retinue of Prince Muazzam, the son of Emperor Aurangzeb. Between 1752 and 1759, twice a year, one of the Jesuit fathers from the Agra Mission visited the Christian soldiers in Kabul and Kandahar. There was a long lull of Jesuit presence in Afghanistan till the 1930s, when Fr. Heras visited Afghanistan, his enlightening study on the Jesuits in Afghanistan opens for us a window into the presence and ministry of the early Jesuits in Afghanistan.
Fr. Stan D’souza, as John Hopkin’s Statistical advisor on the Afghan demographic studies, stayed in Afghanistan, from 1971 to 1973. Later, Fr. Paul Jackson visited Afghanistan in connection with Persian language studies. Then on January 23, 2002, Frs. Peter Balleis and Renato Zecchin went to Kabul and stayed there till February 7, to study how the JRS could help the Afghan refugees. Fr. Stan D’Souza revisited Afghanistan at the request of funding agencies interested in the relief and rehabilitation of the refugees.
In February 2003, Frs. Paul Jackson and Herman Castelino visited Kabul and Herat to meet with various NGOs and the Minister of Education. They were much encouraged with the welcome and promised cooperation. Spurred on by the report of this commission, a second commission, consisting of Frs. V. Kunnankal, Paul Jackson, Aloysius L. Fonseca and Dionysius Lobo, went to Kabul in August 2003 and stayed on for 10 days, studying and surveying the possibilities of Jesuit apostolate. Fr. Fonseca stayed back with a view to preparing the way for a Jesuit outreach. Unfortunately, he suffered a massive cardiac arrest and passed away on February 8, 2004, just a day before he was to leave for India.
A new milestone in the history of the Jesuit presence in Afghanistan began when Fr. Antony Santiago and Br. Noel Oliver landed in Kabul on April 28, 2005. They proceeded to Herat on May 6 to set up a base. They spent a year learning the language and culture of the land, and establishing contacts with International NGOs and local authorities. In August 2005, Fr. P. S. Amalraj, Coodinator of JRS of South Asia helped officially register the Jesuit Outreach under the banner of JRS. On July 17, 2006, Fr. Stan Fernandes joined Fr. Santiago and Br. Noel.
With their experience of two years of work in Herat, now a new mission has been started in Bamiyan to reach out to the Hazaras by serving in the University of Bamiyan, teaching in the Faculties of Agriculture and Education, and by studying the feasibility of implementing the integrated watershed development programme in that region in collaboration with Catholic Relief Service (CRS) of America.
4.4. Building Put up by JRS for Government Run Technical School
The Central Minister of Education of Afghanistan, Mr. Mohmmad Hanif Atmar, during the inauguration of the Herat Technical School, in Herat Province, said, “Afghanistan can reach new heights in education with the help and support of JRS, an International NGO”.
This school has been built up and equipped by JRS Afghan mission at a cost of 145,355 US $ (building cost $ 80,000 and the balance for equipments and library, practicals etc). Bro. Noel, narrating the evolution of this school said, “We had started supporting this school when it had only 67 students in the 10th class, with Electricity/Electronics as the main subjects. The Government had other plans and today there are more than 490 students, of whom 120 are girls, with Electricity/Electronics and Architecture as the main subjects and school enrolment is on the increase now.
JRS has set up a workshop for basic training, a laboratory for Electronics and Electricals, and a spacious four-storied building, housing all the different sections of the school.
4.5. Educational Scenario of Afghanistan
The educational scenario of this country is going through rapid changes in the recent past. School enrolment has been increasing at a very high rate during the last few years. Between 2002 and 2004, 4.2 million children returned to Afghanistan’s schools. There has been a four-fold increase in student enrolment since the fall of Taliban. There are now more children in schools than ever before in Afghanistan’s history. The enrolment of girls has leapt from an estimated gross enrolment rate of 3% prior to 2002 to 30% of all enrolled students in 2003.
The number of teachers has remained low compared to the growing enrolment and increasing of class size. Even though there been an increase in number of teachers (now reported around 100,000), there is still a clear shortage of female teachers. The teachers’ qualifications remain very much limited. It is said that less than 15% of teachers hold professional teacher training credentials.
There is a great need to develop quality education. If the country’s progress has to be measured in terms of its education, then it should be of high quality. Afghanistan has to achieve a lot in this respect.
During the period of conflict 6870 schools were damaged or completely destroyed; now 50% of the schools are being conducted in open spaces or tents. Although 1753 schools have been repaired or constructed, an estimated 5574 schools will be needed in the next three years. School infrastructure facilities too are yet to be developed.
Children of remote villages, children whose education was terminated by the on-going conflicts, children with special needs, children of returned refugees, ethnic and linguistic minorities and nomadic communities like Kutchis form the marginalized groups in the field of education. Special needs education have to be developed very much. Problems of accessibility to schools for physically challenged and social stigma among the general public are among the issues to be approached in a planned and professional way.
There is a real need for a new curriculum and approach to education. The old system, with textbooks sometimes as old as 50 years, is based on rote learning and very distant from modern student-friendly pedagogy. Textbooks for each grade based on a curriculum are being developed. This has to be accelerated. Due to lack of capacity, it is said that textbooks are printed outside Afghanistan.
Afghan refugees are returning from Iran, Pakistan and India. It is reported that more than 2 million Afghans returned to Afghanistan between March 2002 and January 2005. Two-thirds of these returnees did not receive any formal education while staying in exile.
Vocational schools provide an important avenue for overaged students and returnees to get vocational education in electro-mechanics, auto-mechanics, appliances repair, ceramic ware, carpentry, agriculture and crop science, business studies and management. These schools have to be expanded. There is a great need for equipment, facilities and trained staff. The curriculum has to be updated and made relevant.
The literacy rate in Afghanistan today is one of the lowest among the developing countries. Only 28.7% of Afghans over the age of 15 can read and write. People need to be provided with basic numeracy and literacy to participate in development.
The two main international actors who are assisting the education sector to face the above-mentioned challenges are UNICEF and USAID.
Education can pave the way to the total transformation of Afghanistan in which all goodwilled people should and could participate and collaborate.
4.6. JMJ Sisters from India Collaborating with Jesuits
Health and education are so far the most neglected but much needed areas of attention in Afghanistan and the Jesuits of South Asia are contributing their mite in the field of education in Herat and Bamiyan Universities. Three Sisters of the Congregation of Jesus Mary Joseph (JMJ) have joined the Jesuits in the health mission in Afghanistan in the second week of July, 2007.
There is only one Government hospital in Herat with 500 beds, serving the people of five Provinces (States) of Herat, Farah, Badghis, Ghor and Helmond. The lifespan of Afghans is 45 for women and 43 for men. This hospital, though being a nerve centre for millions of people, does not have facilities to treat head and heart diseases. For such serious ailments, people have to go to nearby Iran or faraway Pakistan and India. Though other cases are treated in the hospital, there are no modern medical equipments such as scanner etc or sufficient supply of medicines. Mostly, people buy medicines from pharmacies who import most of the medicines from Pakistan.
The Indian Medical Mission, with two resident Indian doctors and a few other health workers, has been functioning for the past two years as a goodwill gesture by the Indian Government. There is always a large of crowd to get treatment because of the good treatment and the free medicines supplied. These medicines are sent by the Indian Government regularly and supplied here by the Indian Counsulate.
JRS-Afghanistan has already provided emergency oxygen equipments and facilities, ECG equipment to the Herat Government Hospital and first aid kits to the midwifery students.
A team, consisting of Sr.Innamma, Provincial of JMJ Congregation, Hyderabad Province with Sr.Velankanni Mary, counsellor of Bangalore Province, visited this hospital in the last week of November, 2005, at the request of the Jesuits here. Based on their first-hand knowledge of the pathetic condition of the hospital and health situation in Afghanistan, they decided to send their Sisters to collaborate with the Jesuits in the much-needed health mission.
Srs. Mary Francis, Bangalore, Jacintha, Guntur both nurses and Sr. Dasari Sujatha, Hyderabad, an educationist, Hyderabad Province have joined this mission. Besides working in the women’s ward in the hospital, they will also promote health awareness among women especially in the rural areas. Sr. Jacintha teaches in the School of Nursing and Sr. Sujatha has started conducting seminars for teachers numbering 360.
Though the initiatives taken by Jesuits are small and limited, they are definitely making great impacts and inroads into Afghanistan. The presence and work of a few more fully committed Jesuits and other volunteers will definitely make a big difference in the total transformation of the country and its 28 million shattered and battered population.