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In Afghanistan, Catholic priest hopes for Pope sympathetic to Islam

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 13 Mar 2013 12:56 GMT
Author: Reuters
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By Jeremy Laurence

KABUL, March 13 (Reuters) - Father Giuseppe Moretti's tiny Catholic Church and his own "Little Vatican" sits behind towering blast-proof walls topped with razor wire, and a guard tower manned by soldiers carrying AK-47 rifles.

From the only Catholic church in Afghanistan, a country seen as the front line in the fight against Islamist militancy, the 75-year-old Italian priest is closely following the conclave at the Vatican to choose the leader of the Catholic Church.

Even war cannot stop television stations beaming live coverage of news from the Vatican.

As long as you have a satellite dish, you can take your pick of the Vatican Channel, Italy's Rai Uno or Al Jazeera among dozens of others following the ins and outs of the election.

Moretti, who carries shrapnel wounds from a bomb attack sustained during the Afghan civil war about two decades ago, has his own favourite: Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan and one of the main contenders to win the papacy.

"Of course, as an Italian, I would like an Italian. And Scola has a very deep connection with Islamic people," he said, adding he hoped the next Pope would also take a close interest in the developing world and alleviating poverty.

Scola, 71, knows Islam as head of a foundation to promote Muslim-Christian understanding.

Moretti, who was born in the Italian province of Le Marche, confidently predicts white smoke signalling a winner will puff from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel before Sunday.

The Italian, who wears the symbols of a bishop including a ring and pectoral cross after his appointment by Pope John Paul II as head of the Catholic Church in Afghanistan, is the only priest in a country which is more than 99 percent Muslim.

Moretti, along with about a dozen Catholic nuns, is acutely aware of the conditions of his posting: no proselytising. Under shariah law, conversion to Christianity is punishable by death.

"We work in silence," he said from his office, which he calls the Little Vatican, decorated with a blend of Afghan art and pictures of Popes and other Catholic icons.

Only foreigners attend daily Mass. These days up to 60 people from generals and diplomats to aid workers congregate in the catacomb-like chapel which is housed inside the grounds of the Italian embassy.

Moretti has lived in the country on-and-off since 1977, and has seen it go from peace to the Soviet occupation, civil war and more than 11 years of the latest war.

"I experienced the civil war ... every day and night it was boom, boom. But I prefer that time to this time.

"Now, it's suicide attacks, checkpoints and giant cement walls. I don't recognise the country anymore. It's very, very sad." (Editing by Robert Birsel)

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