Christmas trees return to the streets of Kabul

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The Independent Online

Sitting on wooden boxes around a chipped table in a half-shattered aircraft hangar, next to a Christmas tree made out of green mosquito netting, British and American soldiers had their Christmas lunch on a cold and bright day in Afghanistan.

Sitting on wooden boxes around a chipped table in a half-shattered aircraft hangar, next to a Christmas tree made out of green mosquito netting, British and American soldiers had their Christmas lunch on a cold and bright day in Afghanistan.

The meal at Bagram air base was subdued, and there was an air of apprehension. The troops went through the motions of pulling crackers and posing for the cameras.

Meanwhile, 32 miles away in the capital, two elderly Afghan men were dusting the pulpit at the only Christian church in Afghanistan, just as they have done every day for the past four years. For all those years the Community Christian Church of Kabul has been empty of worshippers, by the order of the Taliban.

The men, Mohammed Ali and Faqir Mohammed, were quick to insist that they were good Muslims and had no other, Christian, names. It was still too soon, they added, for Christians openly to declare themselves here, the future was too uncertain.

The American Protestant priests had been given 72 hours to leave the the country, and the signs of their hasty departure from the 70-year-old, whitewashed, two-storey church are apparent everywhere.

The Church library book in the vestry has a half-finished entry for a James Galvin, and a King James Bible lies open under the simple wooden cross, as does the service hymnal next to the organ. The Taliban had searched the place for evidence of attempts to convert Muslims, an offence punishable by death. But there is no sign of damage.

Attitudes to foreigners are very different in the post- Taliban Kabul. In Flower Street, in what is left of the city centre, shops were doing a roaring trade in Christmas trees. One of the storekeepers, Abdul Nasruddin, nodded with a smile, saying "happy, merry Christmas". In his hand was a wad of dollars from selling 18 trees at $50 (£35) each.

Afghanistan's first post-Taliban Christmas was a somewhat strange, slightly schizophrenic day. Tribal elders and warlords who had come to the capital for the inauguration of the new interim government a few days ago stood in the foyer of the Intercontinental Hotel, in flowing beards and robes, stressing Afghanistan remained an Islamic state. Hamid Karzai, the new leader, had also declared that was the case.

But there was a Christmas tree in the foyer, and ill- concealed bottles of alcohol were carted up to the fifth floor for what had been billed as Kabul's biggest Christmas party. The embassies, aid agencies and media organisations all threw Christmas parties. Returning American diplomats had discovered that the US mission's stock of wines, beer and spirit had remained untouched through all the years it was shut and some were generously handed out for the various festivities.

But there was no question of the British troops having a drink at Christmas. They were making every effort not to offend Afghan sensibilities. On a morning patrol at Kabul airport, being prepared for the arrival of a multinational force, Regimental Sergeant-Major Dave Pearce of B "Bravo" Company of 40 Commando Royal Marines, said: "We must not do anything to upset the local people, all the lads know that. We are only here to maintain a presence. We are not here to take over their country, we are simply here to help. Everything is going well, and the local people have been very friendly."

The Christmas turkey lunch for the British troops had been personally ordered by Tony Blair, an army spokesman said. Tony's turkeys were eaten by about 250 soldiers in the British section of Bagram. They were also allowed 20-minute satellite phone calls home.

Some of the British soldiers ate with the Americans at the hangar, with twisted skeletons of Russian MiGs in the background. Afterwards there were carols and a game of American football, which the British won.

By dusk, Faqir Mohammed was locking up the abandoned church. "It is sad that there is no one praying here on Christmas Day," he said, shaking his head. "But we went through a terrible time, a time of night. Now, things will get better." He raised his arm and just stopped from crossing himself.

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