But the coronavirus pandemic had a heavy impact on the local Catholic community as the Italian embassy’s chapel was forced to close when the embassy itself entered lockdown.
“In the last seven years, it had become increasingly difficult for me to leave the Italian embassy and for the faithful to leave their respective compounds (diplomatic representations and humanitarian and international organizations) and enter the green zone and the embassy,” he said.
“Over the past two years then, due to the pandemic, many faithful returned to their countries. The embassy was subjected to a strict lockdown, so for several months I was forced to celebrate alone.”
He went on: “Only from October 2020 were the Sisters readmitted for the Sunday liturgy. The other few faithful who remained had the opportunity to participate in the Eucharist only at Christmas and Easter.”
The Taliban’s arrival created even more complications, though at first there was some hope that the status quo would be maintained.
“Once the Taliban took power, they asked foreign NGOs to stay,” Scalese recalled, but many decided to leave or operate only through local staff.
He noted that three Catholic groups — the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Missionaries of Charity, and Pro Bambini di Kabul (“For the Children of Kabul”) — left the country “for prudential reasons.”
Scalese, who is continuing to monitor the situation in Afghanistan, said that “if the conditions were to be met for a resumption of activities, I think no one would hold back.”
He explained that “until now for religious personnel, the only possibility of carrying out activity in Afghanistan was to be registered as social workers, within a non-governmental organization recognized by the government.” Their work was well regarded.
The Italian priest observed that the United Nations and the European Union want to reopen their offices in Afghanistan to distribute aid.
(Story continues below)
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“Personally, I believe that it is inevitable that this will happen in agreement with those in power today,” he said. “I don’t think there is any point in marginalizing internationally — or worse, demonizing — the current government. If you want to help the Afghan people, you need to be willing to work with anyone, regardless of the ideological differences that may divide us.”
He added: “My position has always been clear: I would not have left the country while even a single sheep was left of my little flock. Then when the pastoral staff of the mission preferred to go for prudential reasons, there was no longer any reason for me to stay.”
Scalese saw the departure as inevitable also because, with the embassy closed and local collaborators evacuated, “it was rather complicated to stay in place without being able to count on any support.”
It remains unclear when he will be able to return to Afghanistan.
“Any decision regarding a possible return — by me or a successor — is the responsibility of the Holy See,” he said.
“However, I know that the Secretariat of State is following the situation closely so that a decision can be made when the time comes.”
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