ROME – In the wake of a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport last Thursday that left at least 60 Afghanis and 13 U.S. soldiers dead, the Italian Catholic church has rallied in support of Afghanistan – including the Primate of Italy, Pope Francis, who on Sunday urged leaders to dialogue and ordinary people to prayer and fasting.
The Italian bishops also had some choice words for Western policy in Afghanistan, clearly including the United States though not mentioning it by name, calling that policy “short-sighed … and unable to guarantee the necessary security of the Afghan population.”
Speaking to pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his Sunday Angelus address, Pope Francis said he was following the situation in Afghanistan with “great concern” and that he shares in the suffering “of the people who cry for those they lost in the suicidal attack that took place on Thursday, and for those now searching for help and protection.”
“I entrust the deceased to the mercy of God, the omnipotent, and I thank those who are working to help that suffering population, especially the women and children,” he said, asked everyone to assist the needy and “to pray so that dialogue and solidarity bring a pacific and fraternal coexistence and that will offer hope for the future of the country.”
As crowds packed in at the Kabul airport Thursday in hopes of being evacuated amid the Taliban’s lighting-takeover of the Afghani capital roughly two weeks ago, two suicide bombers and gunmen attacked the throngs of people in two separate areas, one of them near a gate and one at a wastewater canal.
Some 60 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops were killed, and at least 140 more Afghans were wounded, turning desperation into horror as those hoping to flee the country instead tended to the wounded and carried them to ambulances.
The blasts came hours after Western officials warned that a major attack at the airport was imminent, asking citizens to evacuate the area. That alarm went largely unheeded by Afghanis desperate to get a flight out.
ISIS later claimed responsibility on its Amaq news channel. It is not believed the Taliban, who condemned the blasts, were involved.
In his remarks Sunday, Pope Francis said that during historical moments such as this, “We cannot remain indifferent, the history of the Church teaches us so.”
“As Christians, this situation asks us to commit ourselves,” he said, and issued an appeal for all Christians to turn to prayer and fasting for peace in Afghanistan.
“Prayer and fasting, prayer and penance. This is the time to do it. I’m serious,” he said, adding, “We need to intensify our prayers and practice fasting, asking the Lord for mercy and forgiveness.”
Italy’s bishops also condemned the attacks, calling them “cowardly” and lamenting the pain they caused “to a people already tried by suffering and fear.”
In an apparent reference to the United States’ decision to invade Afghanistan in 2003 in a bid to overthrow the Taliban and establish a stable government, the Italian Bishops Conference (CEI) said that “in recent years we have seen choices that have proved short-sighed over time and unable to guarantee the necessary security of the Afghan population.”
“Faced with this umpteenth tragedy, which profoundly offends human dignity, we renew the invitation of Pope Francis ‘so that the clamor of weapons cease, and solutions can be found at the table of dialogue,’” they said.
The bishops issued their own appeal to the international community to work toward guaranteeing peace in Afghanistan and in the Middle East as a whole, “which for too long has been crossed by conflict and marked by violence which always falls on the civil population, weighing above all on the most fragile and defenseless.”
Italy has been among the leading European countries conducting evacuations of Afghan refugees.
On Saturday, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio announced on his Facebook page that Italy had taken first place among the EU countries taking in evacuated Afghanis, welcoming some 5,000 civilians over the past week.
“This demonstrates the commitment and seriousness of our country, of women and men who have done an excellent job,” Di Maio said, noting that what he called “Phase 1” of the evacuation plan ended Saturday, with Phase 2 to begin soon.
Next week, the “Italian plan for the Afghan people” will begin, he said, which will involve activities to welcome and educate the children and young people who have arrived in Italy over the past week.
Di Maio said he has also asked the Slovenian Presidency and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grande, to participate in the next meeting of European Foreign Ministers to discuss the situation.
“We cannot leave anything to chance,” he said, noting that the risk of further terrorist attacks in Afghanistan “is high and the Afghan people must be supported by the entire international community.”
In their statement, CEI said that as the situation in Afghanistan continues to unfold, “the world cannot turn its eyes away,” pretending not to see or acknowledge the fact that the rights of a women, children, the elderly, and ethnic and religious minorities are once again being restricted in Afghanistan.
“We invite everyone to turn their hearts to those who are most in need and live poverty and disease,” they said, and voiced support for the small Christian community in Afghanistan, assuring them of the Church in Italy’s commitment to welcoming refugees.
“While we invite our ecclesial community to invoke peace for the tormented land of Afghanistan and for all other contexts in which the winds of war are blowing, we assure our prayers for the victims and our closeness to their loved ones, as well as to those who are paying the highest price of this new wave of violence,” they said.
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