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Christians and the Vale

Christians and the Vale

Author: Khursheed Wani
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: December 31, 2006

A large number of Kashmiris have converted to Christianity in recent years. Khursheed Wani finds out why

Can violence change the demography of a region? The continuing 17-year separatist violence in Kashmir has somewhat disturbed the religious and ethnic make up of the Muslim-dominated Valley. On the one hand, a 0.2 million strong Hindu Pandit population has been reduced to a mere 6,000 scattered individuals following a mass exodus in 1990. On the other, an entirely new phenomenon - the conversion of Muslims to Christianity - has cropped up. It is being estimated that the Christian population in the valley has increased from a mere 650 people (according to the 1981 census) to something to the tune of 13,000.

But if the Pandits left the Valley for fear of the gun, Christian missionaries have actually cashed in on that fear. The majority of Christians in Kashmir have converted to that religion during the years of insurgency.

It is not a hidden fact that conversions are taking place regularly across the valley, though the numbers are debatable in the absence of an authentic census. A survey in the valley, particularly in Srinagar, reveals that around a dozen Christian missions and churches headquartered in the US, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland have set up base. Their evangelists are the first to reach areas where violence and natural calamities take place, to provide help and consolation. A Catholic evangelist based in Srinagar was among the first to reach the site of a 700-year-old Muslim shrine gutted in a mysterious fire in December 1998 at Tral, among the first to reach Chattisinghpora village in March 2000 where 35 Sikhs were massacred, and again among the first to reach Uri which was ravaged by the October 8, 2005 earthquake. The token presence of such men and the help they provide makes a great impression on those under severe trauma. The aid workers do not fail to talk about the Gospel.

Over the years, Christian converts were mustering up courage to express and exhibit their new faith. And so churches like Holy Family Catholic Church and the All Saints Church as well as several underground houses of worship set up in areas like Shivpora were receiving sizeable numbers of worshippers on Sundays. The bishops admit that they baptise newcomers on each occasion. It may not sound surprising that a female convert from Kashmir University has translated the Bible into Kashmiri. And two girls in a south Kashmir village had insisted that their father be buried in a coffin, according to Christian tradition.

But all this changed after November 11 this year, when militants attacked a Christian convert in Mamoosa village in north Kashmir's Pattan belt. Bashir Ahmad Tantray, a 50-year-old electrical engineer, was shot dead from a point blank range. Tantray, villagers say, had left his village a decade ago after joining a philanthropist organisation. He had actually converted to Christianity. Three years ago, he confirmed having changed his faith to a reporter in Srinagar and said he was committed to the spread of Christianity. Among other things, he was supervising a hostel - called House of Peace - in a posh Srinagar locality where several dozen children belonging to poor families from Anantnag, Pulwama and Baramulla districts were allegedly being brought up as Christians.

Tantray's killing shocked Kashmir's Christian community, forcing them to maintain a low profile. The government has also instructed Kashmiri Christians to lie low. Though no militant outfit claimed responsibility for Tantray's killing, a common refrain is that separatist Islamist militants have carried out the act. So frightened were the villagers after Tantray's death that they buried him in a Muslim graveyard and offered nimaz-e-jinah as per Muslim traditions.

But that murder was not the first sign of resentment against Kashmiri converts. Last year, a cameraman with a local television network was killed in the Tral pocket of south Kashmir for alleged conversion. Then, militants targeted two female teachers working in a south Kashmir missionary school, killing one of them and injuring the other. Four months ago, the Good Shepherd School in Pulwama was temporarily closed down by the local administration following an attack by the public. The people claimed that the school authorities were forcing children to convert to Christianity. Employees of the school also say they have received threats. In Uri, a Christian NGO was asked to wind up by the local administration following a public demonstration when its workers distributed religious literature among quake hit villagers along with the relief material.

It is believed Kashmiri Christians are directly linked with groups in New Delhi and receive overseas funding through this channel.

Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) officials in New Delhi strongly resented Tantray's killing and other attacks on Christians. Rev Richard Howell, EFI secretary-general, had reportedly blamed militants for the attacks.

EFI released an extensive report on the killing. "We mourn the death of Tantray and request prayers for the family in their time of grief," the report said. Tehmina Arora, secretary of EFI's legal department, was quoted as saying that Christian groups are "concerned about the growing number of incidents against Christians in the state." Rev Howell had said his organisation would discuss the matter with the state administration.

The Muslim clergy in Kashmir is not much worried by reports of conversions. Some of them say the figures are being deliberately exaggerated. But others see a definite threat. About three years ago, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, Kashmir's head preacher and leader of a faction of the separatist Hurriyat Conference, organised a forum of ulemas from different Islamic schools of thought to chalk out a strategy to counter evangelist threats. The forum, however, had only three meetings. "The ulemas were not concerned about the gravity of the problem. They instead attempted to concentrate on the conflicts within the different Muslim schools of thought," lamented Showkat Shah, chief of a Muslim religious organisation.

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