National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  January 30, 2004

Catholic aid director outlines struggles in fragile region of Asia


Though Catholics are a tiny minority in South Asia, the church plays a disproportionately important role within the region, from providing health and social services to helping broker peace in countries as different as India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

For example, said Sean Callahan, New Delhi-based regional director for Catholic Relief Services, in Sri Lanka where there has been a 20-year war that has pitted the predominantly Hindu insurgent Tamil Tigers against the primarily Buddhist Sri Lanka Singhalese population, Catholics are only 8 percent of the population.

But because half the Catholics are Tamils, and half are Singhalese, “the church is a player and has been able to develop a national peace plan,” brokering meetings between the two sides.

In India, by contrast, Catholics, though only 18 million strong in a country of 1.2 billion, operate the second largest social services system after the Indian government.

Callahan, speaking at St. Mel’s parish, Woodland Hills, Calif., has covered the six countries since 1998. He provided a thumbnail sketch of each nation and its internal fragilities in order to weigh the severity of potential clashes between cultures.

Three of the nations are Islamic (Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh), two predominantly Hindu (India and Nepal), and one predominantly Buddhist (Sri Lanka). All are experiencing various degrees of internal violence. “Is religion the cause of it?” asked Callahan, rhetorically. “Probably not.”


Callahan said his impression of Afghanistan’s population of 26 million is that, despite the nation’s devastation and rubble, Afghanis “are a people of hope. They have had 35 years of constant violence and are a lot more optimistic than the foreigners who visit them. They believe the country is going to get better.”

There are now 4 million children attending school, including a million girls, previously excluded.

He said CRS is supporting tent schools in 99 villages where accelerated education programs are trying to bring children up to their age/grade level. He has visited classes where there are 8-year-old boys and 38-year-old demobilized soldiers studying third-grade math.

Ex-soldiers told him they are the poorest people in the area and education is the only way to move up. Callahan said Afghanistan’s emerging political system remains vulnerable, and the warlords retain a great deal of power.

In a nation with an army of 7,000 to 8,000 soldiers, some warlords have 20,000 militia members under their sway.

“The threat to democracy moving forward is ignorance and poverty,” said Callahan, for it “leaves people easily manipulated by extremists.”


The speaker said he regards Pakistan as the current key to South Asia’s future. Because of close ties between the Pakistani military, its CIA and the Taliban, Pakistan was extremely influential in helping mastermind the Taliban’s Afghanistan successes. “Breaking the Taliban nexus with the Pakistani military is proving difficult,” Callahan said.

With a population of 140 million, he said, “Pakistan is a partner with the U.S. in the war on terrorism, but supplies North Korea and Iran with nuclear technology. There is tremendous corruption in the country; a moderate [Islamic] population in the cities, but more radical in the border areas, particularly borders with Afghanistan. So there’s some fragility there.”


With the region’s second largest Muslim population, some 130 million among the 1.2 billion Indians, and flanked by Pakistan and Bangladesh, India’s Hindu’s are countering internally with “Hindutwa,” a radicalization of their own, explained Callahan. It is a trend “not favorable to minority communities,” he said. Both Muslim and Christian communities have suffered from outbreaks of severe violence. Callahan suggested that radicalization was driven more by politics than religion.

“This is a country with tremendous [economic] potential,” he said. “The economy is growing at 8 percent annually,” and the nation has emerged as a new economic power in information technology outsourcing, and will soon compete globally with its pharmaceuticals. Callahan said that whatever anyone says about India is “probably true.”

“Its two largest power sources are nuclear energy and cow dung. Children are seen as gods and there are 60 to 100 million child laborers. India puts satellites in space, and 300 million live in poverty on less than a dollar a day.”


Tiny Nepal, wedged between India and China, is a constitutional monarchy with a Maoist insurgency. The Maoists have gained support, Callahan said, primarily because the government has not addressed the needs of the poor in the population of 20 million noted for its poverty.

Such is the poverty, he said, that there is increased trafficking of women and children from Nepal into the sex industry in India, particularly to Mumbai (formerly Bombay) simply in order to survive.

Callahan said that when he has asked Catholics from religious communities who work in Nepal’s isolated areas if they face difficulties from the insurgents, they have told him they are fine -- because they are working at what the Maoist rebels are proposing.


On India’s eastern flank, Bangladesh, with more than 80 million people, is a democracy, though fragile, and extremely poor. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan, they exerted some influence also with Bangladesh, he said, so there has been increased radicalization there, too.

Sri Lanka

This nation once enjoyed the United Nation’s highest ranking for quality of life: the combination of education, literacy, the role of women in the society, human rights, nutrition, and political involvement in the democracy. Two decades of insurgency by the Tamils, brought by the British in the 19th century to the Buddhist island state to work in the plantations, lead Sri Lankans today to believe “the war has slowly caused their culture to disintegrate,” said Callahan. The social indicators have deteriorated, and women particularly are vulnerable, he said. “It’s a sad process in what was the Pearl of South Asia,” he added.

Geopolitical stability

From the United States’ perspective, Callahan explained, having any of the countries radicalize further is a threat to stability. India feels the threat to the west of a radicalized Pakistan and Afghanistan (and the latter shares a border with Iran), and a radicalizing Bangladesh to the east. Despite internal pressure for a return to democracy, the once popularly supported military coup led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, the pivotal nation, has lost much of its backing from the populace. “But Musharraf still seems to be the only game in town,” said Callahan.

The Catholic presence

Until the U.S. military arrived there, Callahan said he could count only five Catholics in Afghanistan, “the priest at the Italian embassy, and four members of the Little Sisters of Jesus. Now there are aid workers and soldiers at Sunday Mass, too.” That said, the unified response of three European Catholic aid agencies and CRS translates into a major presence in the country.

“Pakistan’s small Christian population is under attack. Ditto in India,” he said, despite the Indian church’s extensive presence in India in providing social services and education, and an emergency response network.

Across borders, he said, Catholics scheduled a Jan. 17 joint meeting in Mumbai, India, between Indian and Pakistani Catholic justice and peace groups as the church tries to forge further linkages in the cause of peace. In Nepal and Sri Lanka the church works at assisting in negotiations between the government and the rebels.

Questions for Americans

Callahan said that Americans, particularly those in Pakistan, are frequently asked why the United States believes Osama bin Laden speaks for all Muslims, and why the U.S. media often refer to “Islamic terrorists.” They ask, “Do they say Timothy McVeigh was a Christian terrorist?” The Asian speakers counter American rhetoric, he said, by contending that if there is a clash of civilizations, who is trying to foment it? “Is it us in Islam, or are you trying to pick a fight somehow?”

Asians want to know why those being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are not subject to normal judicial procedures, and why they are not charged if the authorities have a case. “These are difficult questions for us there, on the spot, to answer,” said Callahan. “We do not know why these people are not charged.”

Offering a further insight at the St. Mel’s meeting, Callahan said that while many Afghanis, for example, are glad the Taliban are gone, some of CRS’s Pakistani partners “felt that the United States was bigger than needing to respond with violence to Afghanistan. [They think] America would have been stronger to take the [9/11] hit and move forward. Whether they are right or wrong, those are some of the impressions.”

His own opinion, he said, was that the United States would probably appear a lot stronger to Asians if it exhibited a little less hubris and a little more humility. “Bravado doesn’t sell well overseas,” he said.

Callahan has now returned to India.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor-at-large. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, January 30, 2004

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