Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Claims of 'apostasy' and 'persecution' of Christians in Kashmir: How false, how true?

 By Yusuf Jameel

It would be making a mountain out of a molehill. Or some people are clearly

lying through their teeth and by doing that they are behaving in an

irresponsible fashion and, undeniably, without actually giving a thought to

probable repercussions.

‘Christians are fleeing Kashmir’, as is being suggested by some, is far

from the truth or, at least, an attempt to present a situation

portentously; a depiction which betrays the ground reality.

Thousands of Kashmiri families relocate to various places in Indian planes,

mainly 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 more people including

students and their parents tag along. Also among the transitory émigré are

native and outsider Christians as majority of them is chiefly connected

with educational institutions. It would be naïve to call it forcible

expulsion or a step taken in distress. Surely, they would be returning to

the Vale of Kashmir in coming days as the weather is improving and the

winter vacations in schools and colleges are in closing stages.

That said, purporting the situation in the scenic region continues to be as

enjoyable for sections of Christians, precisely the evangelical Christian

activists, as before would tantamount a false statement. They may find it

difficult to work among the local Muslims after openly accused of luring

the members of the majority community, mainly the youth, into Christianity

by offering them riches, the charge vehemently denied by the Church. A news

portal supporting the cause of Gospel 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.”

A Srinagar (Islamic) Shariat court had earlier this year issued a decree

seeking expulsion of a Protestant pastor and a Dutch Catholic missionaryand three other evangelical Christian activists finding

them "guilty of luring Muslims of Kashmir, especially boys and girls, to

Christianity by exploiting their financial conditions.” The move 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

though. At least, the commoner is somewhat indifferent. Yet Christian

groups fear such diktats could encourage extremist elements to indulge in


Majority of Kashmiri Muslims is nonchalant, not because Church’s alleged

“repugnant” activity is not gauged by it as being ‘worrisome’ but it is the

poor standing in public of the cleric who heads the court-not the

institution inherited by him itself-which is working towards restraining

excitement. In fact, many Kashmiri Muslims are wary of his 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 he has made a move haphazardly rather overreacted

on the issue in order to get his own image better. His detractors accuse

the cleric of making attempts to seize the issue also to re-launch his son

as his deputy in the run up to claim the legacy after his return to the

Valley from the Gulf where he spent nearly two decades in comfort to escape

difficult times the Valley was passing through in the aftermath of the

separatist or pro-freedom movement turning violent and India launching a

tough military campaign to suppress it towards the end of 1989. The

criticism is, however, rejected by the cleric’s supporters as being “uncalled-for”

and even “mischievous” and claim the ‘Shariat’ court had 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 Christian priests before 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


Notwithstanding, sections of Muslim clergy including the ‘whistleblowers’

and others who had publicly voiced concern over the reports of pastor Rev.

Chandermani Khanna, Presbyter In-charge, Anglican All Saints’ Church,

Srinagar and 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; 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 alarm seems to have been misinterpreted and the

fundamental issue lost in the “unwarranted” outcry 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,” he said.

The argument is not misplaced. A report ‘Missionaries bring aid,

controversy to Kashmir’ appeared in The Christian Science Monitor some time

ago had 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 conversion’

which was not good for the local Christians, who for centuries have shared

cordial relations with the local Muslims here.

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 go in for in retrospection as to what went wrong and try to

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. As is being 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 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 had arrested pastor Khanna after initiating proceedings

against him on charge of disturbing communal harmony is now more or less on

back foot 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


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, raising it with various religious leaders, social activists and

select journalists of the Valley and seeking their help to “nip the evil in

the bud.” But he was almost 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 but repented the decision and wanted to return to

Islam’s fold. The cleric took him along and during his ‘debriefing’ found a

video clipping recorded on his mobile phone which revealed 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 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 priest 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 it. However, he too felt hurt as Rev.

Khanna implores at 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 enraged at the


Mufti Bashiruddin chose to issue summons to Rev. Khanna and asked him to

present himself before his ‘Dar al-Fatwa’ or 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


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 Vale of Kashmir are enrolled at these schools.

However, the state government had 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 thrown up 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 had detained some

Christian missionaries also in February 2006 who were allegedly trying to

convert earthquake-affected people of Uri district in north 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,

audiocassettes, 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


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 he is camping for past 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.

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