BHOPAL, India (CNS) — Indian Jesuits in Afghanistan are not sure what is in store for them as the strife-torn nation slips into conflict as the United States winds down operations after almost 20 years of war.
“We will continue to accompany and give hope to the suffering people in whatever way is possible for us,” Jesuit Father Jerome Sequeira, who heads the Society of Jesus’ mission in Afghanistan, told ucanews.com July 19.
But with the Taliban making sweeping gains, fears of human rights and cultural abuses loom large.
Father Sequeira said “uncertainty and nervousness are very much palpable in the country,” but we “are committed to our cause.”
The Jesuits came to Afghanistan in 2004 to work with Afghans in rebuilding the war-ravaged nation through education.
The Jesuit Refugee Service stepped in to educate young people, focusing on internally displaced persons, returnees from neighboring countries and other vulnerable communities. In collaboration with local staff, the Jesuits trained more than 300 young teachers and who the order said are educating more than 25,000 boys and girls in four provinces.
Girls were major beneficiaries of the Jesuit mission in a country still haunted by memories of the Taliban’s misogynistic rule before it was toppled in 2001. With the Taliban’s expected return, mothers and daughters are worried again.
Media reports quoted unnamed mothers as saying the Taliban could forcibly take away their young girls and marry them off to Taliban fighters. Other reports cited an order asking imams in Taliban-controlled areas to prepare a list of girls above the age of 15 and widows below 45 to be married off to fighters.
The return of the Taliban meant women can no longer even think of stepping out of their homes without being accompanied by a male member, independent observers said.
However, Taliban spokesman Bismillahi Rehmani Raheem in a recent interview with India Today brushed aside reports of women not getting proper treatment under its rule.
“We will give all the rights to the woman and people of Afghanistan that they deserve,” he said.
He also denied reports that the Taliban had imposed restrictions on the movement and employment of women, describing them as the handiwork of their “enemies” to defame them.
In addition to education, Indian Jesuits have been involved in supporting livelihoods and providing long-lasting solutions for a peace in the war-ravaged country.
“We work in collaboration with local communities and government agencies helping victims of war and ethnic conflicts to live with dignity,” Father Sequeira said.
It was never an easy task.
Suspected Taliban fighters in June 2014 abducted Father Alexis Prem Kumar, who was serving as JRS coordinator in Afghanistan, while visiting a school in Herat province. The priest was released in February 2015.
The Jesuits’ links with Afghanistan extends to the 16th century. In 1581, Mughal Emperor Akbar took along a Jesuit priest from Agra in northern India to Kabul, Afghanistan. A year later, Jesuit Brother Bento de Goes, a Portuguese missionary and explorer, stopped at Kabul on his way to China.
Neither of them stayed long. But the Indian Jesuits in present-day Afghanistan intend to stay despite the planned U.S. pullout of troops.
“Our vision has been to reach out to the unreached and to take the road less traveled,” Father Sequeira said.