Catholic Church in India Relieved as Priests and Nuns Return From Afghanistan
Sister Theresa Crasta, who was among those evacuated from Kabul this week, shares her experience with the Register.
NEW DELHI — Leaders of the Catholic Church in India have expressed “relief” over Indian nuns and priests being evacuated from troubled Afghanistan.
“We are happy and relieved that these Church personnel have been evacuated safely,” Archbishop Felix Machado of Vasai, secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), told the Register.
“Jesuit priests, Charity and MC [Missionaries of Charity] nuns all have been moved out. We thank the [Indian] government and others involved in ensuring their protection and evacuation,” said Archbishop Machado.
Two Jesuits, Fathers Jerome Sequeira and Robert Rodrigues, were among 78 Indian nationals who were flown to New Delhi Aug. 24 from Dushanbe in Tajikistan on a commercial fight after they were evacuated from Kabul to the Tajik city via a military aircraft. Sister of Charity Theresa Crasta was also on the evacuation flight.
Safe in Rome
As Archbishop Machado spoke, four Missionaries of Charity nuns, one of them Indian, along with 14 orphan children they cared for in Kabul, were on a flight to Rome.
“Yes, they are safely in Rome now,” Sister Theresa told the Register Aug. 26, in a telephone interview from a government-run quarantine center outside New Delhi, where all of the evacuees who weren’t sent to Rome are being kept for two weeks of quarantine due to COVID-19 policies.
“There was not as much tension there [in Kabul] as has been projected,” said the 49-year-old nun, who had served for nearly three years at the special-care school run by Pro-Bambini di Kabul (PBK) Italiana.
The organization is the forum of 14 Italian Catholic religious congregations that came together after the 2001 Christmas appeal of Pope John Paul II to care for “special children of Kabul.”
Sister Theresa’s congregation, the Sisters of Charity Capitanio & Gerosa (SCCG), with its motherhouse in Rome, is one of those 14 congregations. Her fellow congregation member, Sister Shahnaz Bhatti, flew Aug. 26 to Rome with the Missionaries of Charity nuns.
“While I am happy to be back in India in the present situation, the 14-day quarantine is a disappointment,” said the nun, who hails from Our Lady of Dolour parish in the Diocese of Mangalore, in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
“We are just waiting to see her. Our elderly mother is very anxious. But the quarantine has reduced our joy,” said John Crasta, Sister Theresa’s brother, expressing his own frustration that she has to endure two weeks in quarantine in New Delhi.
‘We Love Them’
“I feel very sad that we had to close our center and leave so abruptly,” she said. “Our center in Kabul (12 miles from the airport) has been running the special daycare school for 50 children in the age group of 6 to 10 for nearly two decades. Our staff used to bring the children with special needs (mentally challenged) in the morning and drop them home in the afternoon.”
“I am worried about those children and praying for the day when we can go back and take care of them. The children and people of Afghanistan love us, and we love them,” Sister Theresa said.
The center had functioned smoothly with four nuns and five local teachers until the COVID pandemic spread in the landlocked country, the nun said. Some of them left after falling ill, and before replacements could come, the school was shut down due to the pandemic.
“We reopened only at the end of July,” Sister Theresa said. “As big changes were taking place [with withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of August], we thought we could stay on. I bought a regular ticket to fly home and get back after a month. Then all the [commercial] flights were canceled. But with the sudden change, we did not know what to do.”
“We did not face any problem after the Taliban moved into Kabul. But we could not just decide to stay on our own,” the nun said.
“The Jesuit fathers had gone to the airport and returned. They arranged seats for us through the government and informed us to reach the gurudwara [Sikh temple] near us on Monday,” she recalled.
One of the Jesuits, Father Sequeira, had been in Afghanistan since 2006, with the Jesuit Refugee Service programs.
In all, 78 Indian citizens, including dozens of Sikhs and Hindus, were taken in buses to the airport for this week’s evacuations and flown to Dushanbe in military aircraft of the Indian Air Force. India has evacuated more than 1,000 Indians since mid-August, when the Taliban reached Kabul following the withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces.
“More than physical harm or violence, people are in fear about the past,” Sister Theresa said.
U.S. and NATO forces had been keeping the Taliban at bay since 2001, after they were militarily pushed out following the terror reign of 1996 to 2001.
With most of the Indians now having been evacuated, The New Indian Express reported on Aug. 26 that some Indians from the southern state of Kerala were planning to remain in Afghanistan.
A former senior staff member of Catholic Relief Services, who requested anonymity, earlier told the Register he also planned to stay in Afghanistan, without taking the evacuation flight.