Holy See Reportedly Pressing for Talks With Taliban to Avert Humanitarian Catastrophe

Vatican representatives declined to comment when contacted by the Register, but an Italian journalist reported over the weekend that a ‘confidential channel’ has been opened between the Holy See and the Taliban.

Taliban fighters in a vehicle patrol the streets of Kabul on August 23, 2021 as in the capital, the Taliban have enforced some sense of calm in a city long marred by violent crime, with their armed forces patrolling the streets and manning checkpoints.
Taliban fighters in a vehicle patrol the streets of Kabul on August 23, 2021 as in the capital, the Taliban have enforced some sense of calm in a city long marred by violent crime, with their armed forces patrolling the streets and manning checkpoints. (photo: Wakil Kohsar / AFP/Getty)

VATICAN CITY — The Holy See is calling for the opening of talks between the Taliban, regional political leaders, and Western countries in order to avert a humanitarian catastrophe as U.S. and allied forces withdraw from Afghanistan.

In a front-page Aug. 19 editorial, Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano argued it “will of course be necessary to negotiate with the Taliban” on migration issues as well as “human rights and fundamental freedoms, so that they grant those who don’t feel safe the possibility to leave Afghanistan.” It added that any such talks “must be done quickly.”

The editorial, headlined “The Responsibility to Welcome — the Tragedy of Fleeing Afghans,” called on the international community to “take action to ensure that the Afghan refugee situation does not turn into a new catastrophic humanitarian emergency.” 

It also accused nations “who had a responsible role in Afghanistan” of not foreseeing such an emergency, saying it was “surprising” such a scenario was not envisaged — or worse, that nations were aware of such a probable crisis “and nothing was done to avoid it.” 

The article preceded a claim over the weekend by veteran Italian journalist and lobbyist Luigi Bisignani that a “confidential channel has unexpectedly been opened between the Holy See and the Taliban to create a fully functioning humanitarian corridor.”

In a letter to the Italian daily Il Tempo published on Aug. 22, Bisignani alleged that, under the impetus of Pope Francis, the Vatican Secretariat of State and the Congregation for the Oriental Churches are working on a three-way dialogue with the Taliban mediated by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Bisignani said such a dialogue “could miraculously help us” in light of a classified intelligence report being circulated in government ministries that foresees a new wave of immigration producing “disturbing scenarios” and an elevated risk of terrorist attacks. 

The alleged diplomatic initiative of the Holy See follows Pope Francis’ call on Aug. 15 to pray for the situation in Afghanistan “so that the din of weapons ends and that solutions can be found around a table of dialogue.” The Pope did not mention the unfolding crisis during his Angelus address on Aug. 22.

The Holy See Press Office did not respond to the Register inquiries about Bisignani’s claim. 

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations With States, and Archbishop Christophe El-Kassis, the apostolic nuncio to Pakistan, which oversees Afghanistan in the absence of formal diplomatic ties, also did not respond to Register requests for comment on the Holy See’s approach as both are on vacation. 


Bungled Withdrawal

The Biden administration has been widely excoriated for what many critics say has been a bungled withdrawal that reneged on a 2020 peace agreement between the Taliban and United States, led to the Afghan government to unexpectedly fall, and enabled the Taliban to take control of the country. 

As the regime captured the capital city of Kabul last week, thousands of Afghans sought to escape the Muslim nation. Many descended on the city’s airport, some falling to their deaths as they clung to the exterior of a U.S. military aircraft in desperate attempts to leave. About 28,000 people have been evacuated from the country since Aug. 14, according to reports

In an Aug. 19 statement, Aid to the Church in Need President Thomas Heine-Geldern said it was unclear under the 2020 peace agreement how Afghans who do not espouse the Taliban’s practice of sharia (Islamic law) will be treated. He also pointed out the pros and cons of international approval and recognition of the Islamist regime. 

Should the regime not be internationally recognized, there would be no “formal channels” to engage the Taliban on human rights issues, he observed. “The fact that most Western embassies are closing, and international observers are leaving, like they did in Syria in 2011, is not a good omen,” Heine-Geldern wrote. 

On the other hand, he contended that countries declaring sympathies for the new Emirate would “not only help legitimize the Taliban, but also embolden authoritarian regimes all over the world, particularly in the region, spurring increasing violations of religious freedoms in their own countries.”  

Such international approval would create “a magnet for smaller radical Islamic groups, creating a new constellation of religious terrorist factions that could supplant al-Qaida and the Islamic State.” Heine-Geldern predicted that the situation for Christians and other religious minorities “already suffering oppression” in the region would “further deteriorate.” 

In a statement issued Aug. 23, the Italian branch of Aid to the Church in Need warned that the threat against religious freedom in Afghanistan comes not only from the Taliban but also Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State, and al-Qaeda. 

“The ISKP continues to consolidate, especially following the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and after the start of peace talks between the Taliban and NATO,” the ACN-Italy statement read. “Different to the Taliban, the ISKP counts among its ranks a growing number of educated, middle-class Afghan youth, who are joined by groups of experienced jihadists from al-Qaeda.” 

“We fear that the recognition of the Taliban regime by some countries may also encourage the proliferation of radical Islamic groups that are currently smaller but capable of structuring themselves into a terrorist network potentially capable of supplanting historical formations such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State,” the statement added. “In addition to this, relations between Pakistan, terrorist organizations present in Palestine and in the Syrian province of Idlib and the Afghan regime, are of particular concern.” 

Christians at Risk

ACN Italy echoed Heiner-Geldern’s concerns that the reintroduction of Sharia law would “sweep away the few freedoms that have been painstakingly won, including the very fragile religious freedom” and it predicted that “all those who do not share the Taliban's Islamism, including moderate Sunnis, are therefore at risk.” 

More than 99% of Afghanistan’s population of 27.6 million is Muslim; most are Sunni Muslims, and only 10% are Shiite. According to ACN, the number of Christians is unclear, and could range from 1,000 to 20,000 as many practice their faith in secret. In 2018, only around 200 Catholics lived in Afghanistan. 

The charity recalled that in 2010, the Taliban killed 10 humanitarian workers accused of spreading Christianity and being foreign spies. The group also reportedly told leaders of underground churches they were being watched, and concerns have increased that Christians may be killed, or young Christian girls be given in marriage to Taliban fighters. 

“Even before the Taliban takeover, Christian converts from Islam faced ostracization and even violence from family members,” ACN reported. “As of Aug. 16, two Indian Jesuits and four Missionaries of Charity were awaiting evacuation.”

Meanwhile, an underground protestant group alleged on Aug. 19 that Afghan Christians had been fleeing to the mountains “in a desperate attempt to escape the Taliban who is going door to door trying to kill them.” The Islamists have a “hit list of known Christians they are targeting to pursue and kill,” the report claimed.

“Taliban sharia rule is catastrophic for human rights,” wrote Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, in The Epoch Times. “Without basic rights, in fact, everyone is at risk of arbitrary arrest and punishment,” Shea added. 

Barnabite Father Giovanni Scalese is in charge of the Missio sui iuris in Afghanistan, the only Catholic entity in the country, established by Pope St. John Paul II in 2002. In April, he expressed doubts that the Taliban would be able to restore an Islamic Emirate, but like many, he also did not predict the Afghan government would fall. 

Speaking to the Register last week, Father Scalese said the country was going through a “very difficult moment” but was unwilling to say more due to the sensitivity of the situation. 

He said, “The only thing I tell you is pray for us.”