• November 13, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - It wasn’t the kind of assignment he had been used to, but Capt. Joseph Nonato says his mission in Afghanistan so far has been an eye-opening spiritual journey.

“My favourite times are when we can have an open discussion about faith, prayer and belief,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Catholic Register from Kandahar.
Nonato is a reservist with the Royal Regiment of Canada and is on leave from his job as a religion teacher at De La Salle College, a private Catholic school in Toronto, serving with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan.

This Remembrance Day, Nonato did what he’s done ever since he was deployed to Afghanistan — attended daily Mass at the military base’s chapel at Kandahar Air Field. The chapel is small, with only three chairs, and has a unique feature.

“This must be the only chapel I know of that has weapons racks at the back of the church. It’s surreal.”

De La Salle also remembered its teacher and the soldiers in Afghanistan, as well as those who fought in the First and Second World Wars at a Nov. 11 assembly, said principal Br. Dominic Viaggiani.

Nonato, 35, is the eldest of four children and is the only one in the military. For the past four years, he has been a religion and social studies teacher. He has also helped with the school’s Oaklands cadets program and is a member of Opus Dei.

So what’s it like to be at the heart of the conflict that has divided Canadians? Imagine playing the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now, Nonato writes in a blog, except just play the helicopter sounds “constantly, on a loop.” And it’s not nicknamed the “dustbowl” by soldiers without reason.

But Nonato’s blog, which he calls “Fish Eater in the Sand” to refer to the nickname given to Catholics as “fish eaters” for traditionally abstaining from meat on Fridays, largely centres on the question of faith, how it applies in a war zone and how to find common ground with others who practise different beliefs. The blog is also a way for him to keep in touch with family, friends and his students who set up the blog for him.

As a psychological operations officer, Nonato said he has had a variety of experiences, from meeting Muslim leaders at community meetings to breaking the Ramadan fast with the locals and visiting schools as part of his role to build ties with the community, “counter insurgent distortions” and “highlight the good” that coalition forces are doing in the country.

A common starting point in his talks with the Afghan people has been Mary, also known as “Miriam” in Islam, because she is “regarded in high esteem” by Muslims and is referred to in the Qur’an more times than in the Bible, he said.

“With Our Lady’s guidance, the door opens for me to share our holy faith and learn from them, too,” Nonato wrote.

The day before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Nonato wrote about an Afghan friend who died during a suicide bombing while doing charity work, preaching and carrying out Islamic duties for Ramadan. Expressing disbelief about his friend’s death, Nonato said he had been to ramp ceremonies before where he’s said goodbye to comrades-in-arms from Canada and other NATO countries “more times than I wish to remember. Like I said before — it’s like being at a funeral every week.” But this was the first time Nonato experienced knowing someone whom he served with get killed.

His friend was also the first Mullah who answered his questions about Islam. Nonato remembers the first time they met when they made an agreement: “I’ll teach you how to pray if you teach me how to pray.”

“As a Christian, I tried to find ways where our faith in our common God was the same, and I appreciated his time and friendship,” he wrote. “Today when the Afghan soldiers knelt (or bowed) for the Mullah to lead them in prayers for our dead comrade, I couldn’t help but kneel to pray our own prayers ... it just seemed the right thing to do.”

Meanwhile, a colleague in Toronto said Nonato’s strong Catholic faith will be an asset.

“His faith can help him deal with some of the sad situations that he sees there (like seeing) the people suffering,” said Keri-Lee Mullan, a vice principal at De La Salle.

Although there have been times of great sadness after seeing fallen comrades, Nonato writes about not losing hope. During an October visit to an Afghan school, Nonato found himself at the front of the classroom.

“Through an interpreter, I tried to remind them that they were the future of Afghanistan and that everyone is depending on them to study hard and study well,” he wrote.

Nonato’s blog can be found at: http://fisheaterinthesand.blogspot.com/.

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