Conversion Row Torments Kashmiri Christians

Conversion Row Torments Kashmiri Christians

31 January 2012
Asia Times Online
Sudha Ramachandran

Bangalore: Kashmir's small Christian community is in a state of panic. A fortnight ago, a self-styled sharia court issued a fatwa calling for the expulsion of three Christian priests from Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) for 'luring the Valley's Muslims to Christianity'. The decree by the Islamic court, which has come in the wake of alleged conversion of a handful of Kashmiri Muslims to Christianity, has opened up a new conflict in this strife-torn Indian state. The current crisis was sparked by grainy footage of Pastor Chander Mani Khanna baptizing Kashmiri Muslim youth at the All Saints Church in the summer capital Srinagar. After it appeared on the Internet last October, the reaction was venomous. There were calls to kill the pastor and to burn down churches and schools in the Valley. Meanwhile, a sharia court headed by Mufti Mohammed Bashiruddin began proceedings against Khanna and summoned him for interrogation. Bashiruddin subsequently claimed that the pastor had 'confessed' to having converted 15 Muslim boys to Christianity. Such activities 'warrant action as per Islamic law', Bashiruddin's deputy said, warning of 'serious consequences' if the government failed to act against this. Within hours of the warning, the pastor was arrested for 'deliberately hurting the religious sentiments of the people to disturb peace'. He was subsequently released on bail. The sharia court has now said that it was 'proved beyond doubt' that the pastor and an 'accomplice', Father Jim Borst, an 80-year-old Dutch missionary who has been working in Kashmir for decades were 'guilty of misleading and converting' Muslim boys and girls to Christianity through 'baits and inducements'. 'We want the three Christian priests, M C Khanna, Jim Borst and Gayoor Messah, who have been involved in conversions, to leave the Valley immediately. We are still investigating the case against the principal of Tyndale Biscoe School, Parvez Samuel Koul, and we will soon announce the judgment on him,' Bashiruddin said. The sharia court has also called on the government to take over management of missionary schools. It wants these schools to introduce Islamic prayer and to allot classes for Islamic studies. An inflammatory article titled 'Apostasy Unveiled' published recently in greater Kashmir has further heightened religious tensions. The article purportedly provides a first-person account by 'Imran', one of the boys allegedly converted by Khanna, that claimed the pastor used a girl to entice him to drink alcohol and eat 'swine meat'. The boy recounts 'boozy' nights with the pastor, even drinking 'swine blood' on one occasion with him and his daughter. 'Imran' claims that he was baptized with three others and given the name John Douglas. Jammmu & Kashmir is India's only Muslim-majority state; Muslims account for 67% of its population. In the Valley, Muslims are the overwhelming majority constituting 97% of the population. This proportion grew significantly following the exodus of the Pandits - the Valley's Hindus - in 1990-1991. Sikhs and Christians are the Valley's other religious minorities. The Valley could have a strong connection to Christianity. There is a theory that that Rozabal shrine in Srinagar is in fact the final resting place of Jesus Christ, a claim that is strongly contested by both Christian and Muslim believers. The revival of this debate a couple of years ago drew a stream of curious Westerners to the Valley, raising the hackles of some Muslim clerics. (See Holy row in Kashmir over 'Jesus tomb', May 21, '10) According to the church, there are only 400 or so Christians in the Valley, a figure fiercely disputed by Muslim radicals who insist that around 20,000 Kashmiris have converted to Christianity over the past two decades. The treatment meted out to clergy and threats to the Christian community and its institutions have triggered fears that they, like the Pandits before them, will have to flee the Valley. The Pandit exodus is a bitterly contested issue. In the wake of the eruption of the armed insurgency in 1989, Hindus became targets of violence. 'Hit lists' naming Hindus were announced over loudspeakers from mosques and at mass demonstrations, crowds shouted slogans that frightened Hindus. Then on January 4, 1990, Aftab, an Urdu daily, carried a press release issued by the Hizbul Mujahideen ordering Hindus to pack up and leave. By March 1990, over 300,000 Pandits fled the Valley. Few of them have returned since; most of them languishing in miserable camps for the displaced in Jammu, Delhi and other Indian cities. The reading of the Pandit exodus by the Valley's Muslims, especially the separatists, is quite different. They insist that it was the Indian government that encouraged the flight of Hindus to malign the Kashmiri movement by polarizing along communal lines a movement that was secular earlier. Whatever the reason for the flight of the Pandits, its not only communalize the insurgency but also, struck terror into the hearts of the Valley's other religious minorities. The past two decades has witnessed the rise of a doctrinaire Islam in Kashmir that is far removed from the softer Sufi Islam practiced there for centuries. Kashmiri Christians fear that they are now in the crosshairs of religious radicals. Since 2003, the issue of conversions has surfaced from time-to-time, peaking in the wake of the 2005 earthquake when several reports surfaced of Christian non-governmental organizations using earthquake relief as inducement to convert Kashmiris. In 2006, Bashir Ahmed Tantray, who had converted to Christianity a decade earlier, was shot dead by extremists. Then in 2010, Muslim mobs burnt a school and a church in response to controversial American pastor Terry Jones' threat to burn copies of the Koran. Several schools run by the Protestant and Catholic churches have been burnt over the years. Interestingly, both Islam and Christianity are evangelical religions that are keen to increase the size of their flock. Priests of both religions, especially the latter, seek converts across India. The issue of religious conversion is a hugely controversial one in India. The Hindu right has strongly opposed conversion of Hindus to Islam and Christianity. The Indian constitution recognizes the right to freedom of religion, which means it grants the individual the right to convert too. Thousands of Hindus, especially Dalits (former 'Untouchables') have converted to Christianity. Radical Hindu groups have accused Christian missionaries of cheating poor Hindus by luring them to convert with inducements such as school admissions, employment, opportunities abroad, etc. Several states in India such as Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have enacted legislation that imposes curbs on conversion. But there are no such curbs on conversion in J&K. Conversion is legal here. Though he converted Muslim boys and girls, Pastor Khanna did not break the law. However the J&K government was keen to be seen to be acting firmly on the matter, given the volatile security situation. It had to find some reason to arrest the pastor. Khanna was therefore charged under Sections 153A and 295A of the Ranbir Penal Code, the J&K equivalent of the Indian Penal Code. While 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'. Khanna has not denied converting Muslims. He maintains that people came to him asking to be converted to the Christian faith. Unlike laws in some other Indian states, J&K laws do not require the pastor to inform authorities about the conversions. Whether religious conversions are voluntary or induced is not easy to determine, especially in a situation where converts could recant their story fearing reprisals from their co-religionists. However, if the government believed it was necessary to arrest the pastor as his actions were 'prejudicial to maintenance of harmony', why has it not acted against the sharia court and Muslim radicals, who have incited violence and promoted 'enmity between different groups?' Even more worrying is the fact that the sharia court headed by Bashiruddin has no legal standing. It was neither created by an act of legislature nor was the mufti appointed by the government. Yet the J&K government caved in to pressure from an illegal body at the first sign of trouble. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist-researcher based in Bangalore. She can be reached at sudha98@hotmail.com