By Umar Shah
These days the 128-year-old Holy Family Catholic Church of Srinagar in northern Jammu and Kashmir state is bustling with activity. The sounds of hymns and laughter are common as children gather for Christmas carols.
The parish was closed last Christmas, after devastating floods hit the state in September 2014, killing over 300 people, and causing extensive damage to the church.
Choirs comprising eight to 10 children have been practicing before Christmas and are now visiting homes for singing carols.
Maryam Shammi, a parishioner and choir member, said it excites her to invite Muslim friends for Christmas celebrations. She says it’s also exciting to invite them to her home for Christmas lunch, an event her family was forced to skip last year due to floods.
“This year, I will invite all my friends and we will spend Christmas together,” she told ucanews.com.
There are just 650 Christians living in India’s only Muslim-majority state. As the Christian community is least talked about and remains generally away from the public gaze, Christmas celebrations present a good opportunity to practice interreligious harmony.
Muslim neighbors typically participate in Christmas celebrations, exchanging gifts and greetings.
Lila Richard, an 82-year-old parishioner and a retired teacher who taught at a Christian missionary school in Srinagar, said Christians and Muslims have been living in harmony for decades in the Kashmir Valley.
“As far as I can tell you, we haven’t faced danger of any sort since Christians have never been involved in any upheavals that have engulfed the region over the past two decades,” she said.
When the onset of seperatism came in Kashmir in 1988, violent incidents became the order of the day. Various insurgent groups have fought the Indian army.
Some want the state to become part of neighboring Pakistan, others want full independence from India.
With the emergence of the armed rebellion in Kashmir, there were few radicalized militant groups who pitched for the establishment of a caliphate in the region. They banned cinemas, concerts, and cultural shows in Kashmir — declaring such practices as “un-Islamic.”
Such events not only changed Kashmir’s political discourse, but also made minority communities apprehensive about being targeted in the name of religion.
But, unlike, the local Hindu community, which at the onset of the armed insurgency fled the valley in droves, Christians remained along with their families.
Comprising about 50 families, the community remained scattered across the region, successfully avoiding being targeted during the turbulent era.
As life gradually returns to normal in this restive state, religious harmony is taking root with the new generation.
Father Roy Mathew said education has helped teach people the need to respect each religion and their beliefs.
“There are Muslims who greet us and we see local parishioners inviting their Muslims neighbors to take part in Christmas celebrations here,” Father Mathew told ucanews.com.
For 13-year-old Aryan Disilva, Christmas means enjoying pastries and cakes with his Muslim friends.
“We spend the entire day together and my friends also accompany me to the church,”Aryan said.
The young boy sees no difference between Eid and Christmas in terms of festivity. “Both these festivals bring Christians and Muslims together. No religion permits violence and we must love humanity above all,” Aryan told ucanews.com.
Waheed Gulzar, a local Muslim studying at Kashmir University, said he he looks forward to participating in Christmas celebrations with his Christian friend.
“We both spend the festivals of Eid and Christmas together. Our families always invite each other to come over,” Gulzar told ucanews.com.
“As far as the people here are concerned, there are no rifts between native Muslims and Christians in Kashmir,” he said.
Javaid Ahmad, a research scholar of Islamic Studies, said that in Kashmir’s history, there is not even a single instance where Muslims have expressed any ill will toward Christians.
“People here are aware that Christianity and Islam espouse the concept of egalitarianism, socio-economic fairness, as well as the basic guidelines of piety and moral uprightness,” he said.
Ahmad noted that this year presents a unique scene of religious harmony as on Dec. 24, Muslims celebrate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, followed by the observance of the birth of Jesus.