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Ossining priest finds despair, hope in Afghanistan


(Original publication: January 13, 2003)

NORTH SALEM — The Rev. Stephen Holton found images of hope and despair when he toured Afghanistan in June.

Holton, rector of St. Paul's On-the-Hill Episcopal Church in Ossining, took pictures of anti-tank mines, children's classrooms riddled with bullet holes and posters on the walls of schools telling students not to handle bombs or explosives they find.

The photos, which Holton presented to an interfaith group at the United Methodist Church in Purdys yesterday, revealed even more devastation.

"More destruction," Holton said, scanning through slides on a laptop showing buildings in Kabul destroyed by bombs.

But the next frame shows a hopeful sign — two piles of new bricks laid out for rebuilding. Then there are the pictures of students learning in class, of children smiling for the camera, and of the captain of a Kabul soccer team holding a bright orange ball that Holton brought from the United States as a gift.

"You look at either kids with the notebooks or bombed-out buildings," Holton said. "If I focus on the kids with the notebooks, I'll have some hope, and my energy will build something."

About 25 people came to the discussion sponsored by The Northern Westchester Interfaith Council, which formed in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack that destroyed the World Trade Center.

"We can't live in a world where we're all afraid of each other," said interfaith council member Ruth Ahearn, a 60-year-old North Salem resident and a member of the Baha'i Faith. "We can't change the whole world, but maybe we can make a little dent here in our little community."

During his two-week tour of Afghanistan, Holton visited a mosque about an hour north of Kabul that was damaged by bombs. One of Holton's photographs shows a wall missing and bricks scattered on the floor. The Episcopal Diocese of New York is helping raise about $35,000 to repair it, and Holton plans to go back to Afghanistan next month for the mosque's rededication.

"I feel good about a local priest from Ossining going (to Afghanistan) to be part of a group that's rebuilding a mosque," said Sultan Niazi, a 54-year-old Chappaqua resident and a Muslim. "That is heart-warming. We need to see more of that happening."

Holton began his slide show by telling those gathered that he was about to introduce them to members of their "family."

The comment struck a chord with Susan Cody, 58, a Somers resident and also a member of the Baha'i Faith.

"For any of us to be true to our faith, whichever faith that is ... we must connect with all of God's children and to see ourselves as one family," Cody said.

©Copyright 2003, The Journal News (NY, USA)

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