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Pope offers prayers for victims of earthquake in Afghanistan

At least 1,000 people were killed in earthquake that hit remote area of Afghanistan

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis offered prayers for victims of a strong earthquake that hit a remote, mountainous area of Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan.

At least 1,000 people were dead — the death toll was expected to increase — and more than 1,500 people were injured in the quake, which hit just over 100 miles southeast of Kabul.

At the end of his general audience June 22, Pope Francis said: “In the past few hours, an earthquake has claimed victims and caused extensive damage in Afghanistan. I express my sympathy to the injured and those affected by the earthquake, and I pray in particular for those who have lost their lives and for their families. I hope that with everyone’s help, the suffering of the dear Afghan people can be alleviated.”

The quake struck a rural, mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border in Khost and Paktika provinces early in the morning, but information remains scarce.

The Associated Press reported the disaster posed a major test for Afghanistan’s Taliban government, which seized power last August. Many international aid agencies left after the Taliban takeover.

Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ international relief and development agency, still has a presence there. Officials at CRS could not be reached immediately, but disaster response is one of three target areas listed on the CRS website as the agency’s focus in the country.

At least 2,000 homes were destroyed in the region, where on average every home has seven or eight people living in it, Ramiz Alakbarov, the U.N. deputy special representative to Afghanistan, said to the Associated Press.

Vatican Media reported that footage from Paktika province showed people being carried into helicopters to be airlifted from the area. Others were treated on the ground. But dozens of people are believed trapped under the rubble.

The Associated Press reported that Pakistan said it would send food, tents, blankets and other essentials.

The quake “will only add to the immense humanitarian needs in Afghanistan, and it really has to be all hands on deck to make sure that we really limit the suffering that families, that women and children are already going through,” said Shelley Thakral, spokesperson for the the U.N. World Food Program in Kabul.

A deputy spokesman for Afghanistan’s Taliban government gave no specific death toll but tweeted that hundreds of people were killed and injured in the earthquake. “We urge all aid agencies to send teams to the area immediately to prevent further catastrophe,” he wrote.

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