By Yusuf Jameel
Lately there have been many media reports of Christians fleeing Kashmir, but such reports are inaccurate and fail to tell the entire story.
Such stories fail to mention that thousands of Kashmiri families relocate to various places, such as Jammu, the winter capital of the Himalayan state, and New Delhi, ahead of peak winter season to escape harsh weather back home. With the start of winter vacations at schools and other educational institutions in December and spreading from two to three months, many other people — including students and their parents — also tag along. It is naive to call such emigrations “forcible expulsions” as many of the people will be returning to the Kashmir Valley as the weather improves and the winter vacations for schools and colleges are ending.
That said, purporting the situation as being persecuted continues to happen among some sections of Christians, primarily evangelical Christian activists, and given the above mentioned background could be tantamount to being a false statement. Some of these Christian may find it difficult to work among the local Muslims after openly being accused of luring the members of the majority Muslim community, mainly the youth, into Christianity by offering them “riches’ – a charge that is vehemently denied by the Christians. In such a vein, one Christian news portal reported last week, “The church is still there, but at this point, it seems as if Christian activity has been driven completely underground and has been severely curtailed.”
Again, such claims do not tell the entire story.
A Srinagar (Islamic) Shariat court earlier this year issued a decree seeking to expel a Protestant pastor and a Dutch Catholic missionary, along with three other evangelical Christian activists, by finding them “guilty of luring Muslims of Kashmir, especially boys and girls, to Christianity by exploiting their financial conditions.” The Court decision provoked outrage within India’s religious minority and grabbed newspaper headlines beyond the boundary walls of the country.
Back in Kashmir, the fatwa does not appear to be a major issue for locals – where there seems to be a sense of indifference among the population.. Nevertheless, Christian groups fear such diktats could encourage extremist elements to indulge in violence.
It needs to be understood that the majority of Kashmiri Muslims are nonchalant, not because the Christians alleged “repugnant” activity isn’t being gauged as being ‘worrisome’, but rather because of the poor standing in public of the cleric who heads the court — not the institution inherited by him and which is working towards restraining “excitement.” In fact, many Kashmiri Muslims are wary of the cleric’s moves, ostensibly both because of his wispy religious pursuits and patchy political postures, publicly termed by his critics as “impelled aerobatics.”
Some people also believe the cleric made his decision in an attempt to improve his image. His detractors also accuse the cleric of attempting to seize the issue to re-launch his son asa deputy and to claim the legacy after his return to the Valley from the Gulf where he spent nearly two decades in comfort to escape the difficult times the Valley was passing in the aftermath of the separatist or pro-freedom movement that turned violent, and which India launched a tough military campaign to suppress such movements towards the end of 1989. The criticism is, however, rejected by the cleric’s supporters as being “uncalled-for” and even “mischievous”. Instead, his supporters claim the ‘Shariat’ court had extensive discussions with the leaders and representatives of various religious and social groups besides meticulously carrying out investigations into the ‘repugnant role’ played by the Christians prior to issuing the decree. “He took a strong exception whereas many of those who could have turned the tide preferred to remain silent or were apologetic and inactive,” said an activist.
Notwithstanding, some Muslim clergy — including the ‘whistleblowers’ — and others who publicly voiced concern over the reports of Pastor Rev. Chandermani Khanna, Presbyter In-charge, of Anglican All Saints’ Church, Srinagar and a few others seeking to induce local Muslim youth and bring them into the fold of Christianity by allegedly offering them riches and were railing against what is being termed as “irtidad” (apostasy) — appear to be disillusioned now as the issue has been virtually hijacked by the father-son duo. Or, at least, it is being mishandled by them.
What is more disturbing for them is that not only has the fatwa evoked sharp reaction from across India and abroad, but, as was put by one of them, the intent behind their raising the alarm seems to have been misinterpreted. They say the fundamental issue is lost in the “unwarranted” outcry that is being raised by “vested interest” within and outside the Christian community. “Outside the Valley, the issue being portrayed now is that of assumed persecution of Christians; the small Christian community of Kashmir being in danger and victim of harassment and violence by the Muslim majority than acknowledging the fact that a few unscrupulous elements within the Christian missionaries are involved in impelled conversions which is against the law of the land, unconstitutional and also reportedly Biblically wrong,” said one Kashmir Muslim.
The argument is not misplaced. A report, ‘Missionaries bring aid, controversy to Kashmir’ appeared in The Christian Science Monitor some time ago and said that Christian missionary groups have been flocking to the restive Kashmir, bringing medicine, school books, and self-help programmes, but the influx of Christian evangelists may be exacerbating a volatile situation. It also said local Christians like Pastor Leslie Richards were increasingly agitated by the presence of the new evangelists, who they believed were more interested in conversions than social work.
Mr. Richards was quoted in the Indian Express as saying that Muslims receive cash if they agree to convert and termed these as “Biblically wrong conversions’ which were not good for the local Christians community, who for centuries have shared cordial relations with the local Muslims.
The report quoted Rev. Khanna as saying “Of course, I believe that there are some black sheep in the fold – some evangelists who use money as a lure – but I can tell you that I have been here in Srinagar since July 2002, and I have only converted one person – so even if there are a few others in new churches, it is hardly a case of mass conversion.” Ironically, Rev. Khanna today stands trial as the main accused in the case of alleged impelled conversions. Srinagar Senior Superintendent of Police, Syed Ashiq Hussain Bukhari said in a recent newspaper interview, “There are cases in which the missionaries helped the destitute in lieu of their faith which is not permitted under any law.”
Local watchers say some unscrupulous elements may have exploited the situation seemingly in an iniquitous way, but it also is a fact that the Christian missionaries have been working hard where the Muslim headship, the pro-freedom as well as pro-Indian political parties, social groups and even charity organizations and numerous NGOs have failed: lending a helping hand to the destitute including victims of violence.
The issue of alleged “irtidad” could have been handled differently, in a way acceptable to all by seeking to isolate the evangelists found involved in forced or impelled conversions from the legitimate missionaries, invoke law and constitutional guarantees that proscribe such activity and more importantly address the issues and problems that have provided the basis for the incidence of apostasy. In fact, the Valley’s Chief Muslim cleric and chairman of his faction of Hurriyat Conference (an amalgam of pro-freedom political parties) Mirwaiz Umar Farooq had just embarked on this mission whereas Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the octogenarian pro-freedom leader, had asked for tackling the issue “with utmost care” after he and others watched a video showing more than half a dozen persons including a woman-all but one local Muslim youth-being baptized by Rev. Khanna at Srinagar’s All Saints’ Church and the pastor imploring to see the Kashmir Valley turned into a Christian-majority place soon. This video has been presented as main piece of evidence against the pastor, besides statements recorded at the ‘Shariat’ court by various people including a youth on whose mobile it was found. It is claimed the pastor confessed to his “guilt” before the court and even apologised.
The Church “deeply disturbed” at the fatwa issued against Pastor Khanna and others reacted saying such decrees could encourage extremist elements to indulge in violence. “This is totally unacceptable,” Samuel Jayakumar, a spokesperson for the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), said. He added, “India is a secular country and the personal law of a community should be confined to itself.” Shariat courts have no secular legal standing in India and the one functioning in Srinagar has been termed as an extra-constitutional authority, with no legal sanction.
Back in the Kashmiri capital, the law enforcing authorities– including police which arrested Pastor Khanna after initiating proceedings against him on charge of disturbing communal harmony — are now more or less on caught on the backfoot whereas the state government is feeling embarrassed. However, Mufti Muhammad Nasir-ul-Islam, son of Kashmir’s Grand Mufti Bashiruddin, who announced the Shariat court’s decision seeking expulsion of Christian priests at a press conference, claimed that the local administration has agreed to enforce the “verdict.”
Mufti Jr. strongly denied the decree was against Christian’s living or the institutions they run in the Valley. “We’ve found that three priests and some others are involved in the unethical activities in Valley. We carried a thorough investigation into the case and found out later, all the three were involved in the scandal. The records of their involvement are with the court and their expulsion from the state is an apt judgment,” he said.
The government-backed Shariat court headed by Mufti Sr. claims to have found the conversion took place through alluring the youth by means of monetary benefits and that in order to maintain the communal harmony between different faiths living in Kashmir it had to come up with the “facts.” The court imposed a “complete ban” on Pastor Khanna, his accomplices Ghayoor Messiah and Chanderkanta Chandra and Dutch national, Jim Borst “for their involvement in luring Muslims of Kashmir to Christianity by exploiting their financial conditions and promoting immorality.”
The court has existed in Jammu and Kashmir since the early 1960s. Mufti Bashiruddin is the judge of the court and the appeal against this court lies in the civil court. It, however, has no enforcing agency like police to implement its judgments.
Earlier the Srinagar police had, while keeping in view the sensitivity of the issue, registered an FIR under sections 153-A, 295-C and 186 of the Ranbir Penal Code, the Jammu and Kashmir equivalent of the Indian Penal Code. The decision was taken at the highest level to avoid possible unrest in the Valley. Unlike states like Gujarat, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir does not have a law against conversions. Section 153A pertains to “promoting enmity between different groups… and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.” Section 295A has to do with “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Around same time, police detained five youth who had recently converted to Christianity and were entering a Srinagar Church reportedly to receive financial assistance.
However, since no charges were filed against him, the state’s High Court on February 11 halted proceedings in the police complaint of “promotion of religious enmity by conversions” against Pastor Khanna. It asked the government to file its response by March 14, and then it will set the date for the next hearing. He can now travel because the order binding him to the Vale of Kashmir was lifted, as well. But reports suggest the “stress” has silenced the pastor and he has retired officially from the All Saint’s Church in Srinagar.
The issue of Christian missionaries’ encouraging conversions in the Valley allegedly by way of allurement surfaced a few years ago with ‘whistleblower’ Moulana Muhammad Rehmatuallh, who runs Dar-ul-Aloom Rahimiya, the Valley’s largest seminary located in northern town of Bandipore, who raised the issue with various religious leaders, social activists and select journalists of the Valley and sought their help to “nip the evil in the bud.” But he was more or less overruled and his “disquiet” did not find any committed takers.
The contentious issue resurfaced in October 2011 when the Moulana during a visit to a mosque in Srinagar was introduced to a local youth who had converted to Christianity and later repented the decision and wanted to return to Islam’s fold. The cleric took him and during his ‘debriefing’ found a video clipping recorded on his mobile phone that revealed more than half a dozen persons, including a woman, and all but one local Muslim youth-being baptized by Rev. Khanna at Srinagar’s All Saints’ Church near Sonawar. The youth reportedly told the cleric that he had agreed to convert after the Church of which Khanna is a pastor, offered him money and also promised other profits.
It is learnt that the same youth was sometime back produced before Mirwaiz Umar Farooq by the Christian pastor amidst reports purporting he and other missionaries were using money power and offering lucrative jobs and admissions in professional institutions outside Jammu and Kashmir in order to encourage conversions. But at that time he had strongly denied being lured in such a way. The Mirwaiz had a cordial relationship with Rev. Khanna and other pastors of the All Saints’ Church as he had his schooling at Srinagar’s Burn Hall School run by the church. However, he too felt hurt as Rev. Khanna implores at the video of the baptism ceremony to see the Kashmir Valley turned into a Christian-majority place. Police official Mr. Bukhari and several ulema, imams and other religious leaders from both Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects too were shown the video and were reported to be enraged at the development.
Mufti Bashiruddin chose to issue a summons for Rev. Khanna and asked him to present himself before his ‘Dar al-Fatwa’ or the Islamic Shariat court to explain his conduct. The pastor initially denied the charge of impelled conversions. Meanwhile, the Church issued a statement that Kashmiri youth are showing considerable interest in their religion as it apparently offers them a road to redemption. Rev. Khanna added, “There is no forced conversion and there is nothing which can be called allurement. We do not offer any job or any money. We tell them ‘If you come it is your responsibility to contribute and support the church’.”
However, when shown the video clipping he admitted to his “guilt” and apologised before the court.
The Christian missionaries were believed to be active in the Valley mainly on the educational front. There are about half a dozen major schools, some of these as old as 125 years, besides a few hospitals run by the Christian missionaries in the Valley for decades and are equally very popular among the local Muslims for these impart comparatively better education to its young boys and girls.
Besides head Muslim priest Mirwaiz Umar, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, his father and Indian federal minister Dr. Farooq Abdullah [His wife Molly Abdullah is an English Catholic and one of his daughters is married to a South African Christian), separatist leaders Sajad Gani Lone and even ‘father’ of the insurgency Ashfaq Majeed Wani are alumni of these schools. Presently, the children of almost all pro-Indian or mainstream and pro-freedom political leaders and other prominent faces of the Kashmir Valley are enrolled at these schools.
However, the state government in 2010 sealed two private English medium schools in the frontier district of Kupwara following complaints that these were being used as a front by Christian missionaries as part of their conversion plan. Also in September 2010, two Christian missionary schools in the Valley were attacked during mob violence over the reported burning of Koran in the US.
Earlier in 2005, the Christian missionaries were openly accused of seizing the conditions created by the devastating earthquake for their conversion drive. In April 2011, a Dutch missionary, Jaap Borst, was ordered to leave Kashmir after the state authorities revoked his visa, accusing him of trying to convert local Muslims to Christianity. Police detained some Christian missionaries also in February 2006 who were allegedly trying to convert earthquake-affected people of Uri district in northwest Kashmir. The missionaries affiliated with the Bible Society of India were forced to stop their work in quake-hit areas of Uri following complaints from locals that they were luring people to Christianity by offering monetary incentives. The missionaries had reportedly distributed gas cylinders, water bottles, audio cassettes, and a copy of the New Testament in Urdu to dozens of quake-hit families of the village.
In November 2006, suspected militants shot dead a Power Development Department engineer Bashir Ahmad Tantray of Mamoosa village in north Kashmir, a practicing Roman Catholic since 1995, who was accused of arranging conversions in his area. His two daughters and a son live in Mumbai.
There is no denying of the fact that most of the Christian missionary groups funded by parent groups in the West, including the United States, Germany, Britain, South Korea and the Netherlands have stepped up their activity in Kashmir, the focus of their efforts being on the rural poor and areas bordering Srinagar, a city of about 1.5 million people. Among churches and missions working in Kashmir are US-based Assemblies of God, German Town Baptist Church, and Frontiers. Besides these, there are two German-based missions, Call of Hope and Overseas Social Service, and the Campus Crusade for Christ. The Good Way, a Switzerland-based mission and two Indian missions, National Missionary Intelligencer and Cooperative Outreach of India too have bases in the Valley.
‘History-Makers’, the official website of the youth division of AsiaLink, a Christian mission agency connecting churches with ministry among the unreached peoples of Asia, says that there is considerable interest among Kashmiris and response has been good to advertisements placed in newspapers offering correspondence courses and follow up ministries. It also says “The four million Muslims living in Kashmir are among the most unreached and unevangelised people groups on earth. Pray for those who have been saved. This is a huge step for them to take. Pray for grace to persevere”
On record, the missionaries peg the population of Christians in Kashmir Valley at around 1,000. But, Christianity Today, an Illinois-based magazine of the Evangelists, puts the number of Kashmiri Muslims “who recently converted to Christianity” at thousands. ‘‘There are more Christians in Kashmir than on the record. They have faith in Jesus, but don’t come out. They are not bold about it. Their number goes into [the] thousands in the rural areas.” Government statistics including the 2001 Census report put the Christian population of the Valley as 3,757 including 480 females. This contradicts the claim of Justice Michael Saldhana, former Bombay and Karnataka High Court judge, that ten years ago there were 40,000 Christian families in Kashmir, but in the last 2 years, the number had come down to around 800. Justice Saldhana had with a few other activists at a recently held press conference in Bombay or Mumbai alleged that Christians faced “torture, persecution, en masse massacre and violation of human rights which forced them to flee from Kashmir Valley.”
Meanwhile, Father P. Samuel, the head of Church of North India, met Geelani in New Delhi where the latter is camping for the past few many weeks to discuss the controversy triggered by alleged conversions in Kashmir. “I told him the Muslims of Kashmir are not against minorities as Islam teaches us to safeguard interests of minorities,” he said. Geelani presented Father Samuel with a copy of English translation of Islam’s holy book Koran. Will that help towards building the bridges and be the beginning of an amiable chapter in the Muslim-Christian relationship in Kashmir or ‘vested interest’ on either side will spread their net wide and succeed? The crucial question is wide open. Also, some analysts do not rule out the possibility of whole issue being seized for securing political gains.