Faith Accompli

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Christian missionary activity in Kashmir has come under a scanner after conversion of some vulnerable individuals. The extremely skewed sex ratio of Christians in Kashmir also point towards a concerted campaign, over the years, a Kashmir Life report

As the two young ‘converts’ to Christianity started talking about the processes they underwent for changing their faith, it started looking sinister. Money, it seemed, was just a fraction of the overall package that they were “blessed with” while crossing over the faith barrier.

The two young men from different age groups and socio-economic backgrounds explained to Muslim clergy men and the police the modus opernadi of certain missionaries who are increasingly being accused of conversions using foreign funds as bait. When the now-detained pastor Chander Mani Khanna was summoned by an unofficial sharia court on the issue, one of the two young men who was present countered the pastor. “He confronted the pastor leaving almost no chance for him to lie on certain issues,” one of the clerics who was also present in the ‘courtroom’ said.

One of the youth allegedly lured to the new faith by his desperation for a career had ended up becoming a pastor post-conversion. They offered him help to become whatever he intended to be but after being baptized he opted to become a pastor. The other one said he had a breakup with his girlfriend and somehow it came to their (missionaries) knowledge. Khanna, he said, was able to create such a strong bond with him that he was baptized on the very first of Ramzan, the month of fasting, in 2011, after attending Sunday mass for nearly two months, uninterrupted. It was this young man who posted the Facebook video using his cell phone that eventually became the first major evidence of conversionsin Kashmir.

“I became such a devout Christian that on last Eid when I visited the grave of my mother I read out forty pages from the bible in the cemetery,” the young man, who will be in the twelfth class, next year said. For police and the Muslim clergy, the two young men are the major evidences of the activities of the missionaries in Kashmir. Both of them have spilled the beans and “consciously” decided renunciation of Christianity and coming back to the fold of Islam.  “They do talk a lot of dirt and filth and we are investigating,” a senior police official said.

The conversions have been a public whisper in Kashmir. But it rarely got so much public attention. In November 2006 when suspected militants shot dead a PDD engineer Bashir Ahmad Tantray of Mamoosa village in north Kashmir,talk of conversions died within days. A practicing Roman Catholic since 1995, he was accused of arranging conversions in his area that allegedly led to his assassination. His two daughters and a son live in Mumbai.

But this time, the issue of reportedly large-scale conversions has united the clerics for a united approach to the “onslaught”.

“Apart from passing a resolution against the conversions, the meeting decided to set up a committee that will devise the mechanism for controlling the conversions and suggesting ways and means that will help the society on long term basis,”Shahid-ul-Islam, aide of  Mirwaiz Umer Farooq who was associated with convening a meeting of Muslim clerics, said.

The major concern, Shahid said, was that some of the educational institutions are contributing to the conversions.“I have studied in a missionary school as well but I never came across any such thing. However, in the past 15 years, the trend has changed. It cannot be tolerated. We send our children to such schools with utmost trust. They cannot breach our trust by such acts,” Mirwaiz told the meeting of the clergy – the Mutahida Majlis Amal.

“We are aware of the crisis,” admitted a police officer connected to the investigations. “We know that J&K lacks any law that prevents conversion as long as it is out of one’s free will but law cannot sit silent if there are pecuniary issues involved.”

In its Suomoto action, the police have already detained Khanna in case FIR (186 of 2011) under sections 153(A) – promoting enmity between different groups on ground of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony and 295(A) – deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. Two days after his arrest, police raided Khanna’s residence in Indira Nagar and lots of documents were investigated.

Church of North India (CNI), with which the pastor is affiliated, denies the allegations suggesting that he was not going to the people seeking conversion and the reality was vice versa. Khanna has accepted helping the neo-converts but did not admit that he was seeking converts in lieu of monetary gains. He has revealed that some other priests may be involved in such conversions in Kashmir, according to sources in police and Mufti’s ‘court’.

Police have detained all the seven ‘converts’ who hail from a Budgam village. They all have agreed to become the witnesses against the pastor and have offered entire details of their conversion, interactions and transactions. Most of them have admitted taking money, albeit small amounts, after being baptized by Khanna who has been serving the All Saints Church for over seven years.

“There are cases in which the missionaries helped the destitute in lieu of their faith which is not permitted under any law,” said Syed Ashiq Hussain Bukhari, the Srinagar police chief.

Christianity is not new to Kashmir. Ever since the Portuguese preacher Father Jerome Xavier accompanied Mughal conqueror Akbar to ‘Caximir’ in 1597, adherents of this faith have lived in Kashmir in small numbers. In fact, Kashmir owes the modern health care and the education system to the Christian missionaries who invested massively in Kashmir during the Dogra monarchy. It is this contribution that makes the Christian missionary schools preferred in Kashmir.

In return and recognition of their services, the Christian educational missions receive very good facilitation from the government and the society. The land is leased to these schools in the city on nominal rent. The Tyndale Biscoe -Mallinson School premises spread over 85 kanals of land in the heart of the city is rented to them at Rs 6000 a year. The Burnhall School occupies 32.4 kanals of land for Rs 3242 rent a year. The government policy towards expansion and setting up new schools by the missionaries has not changed, even though the schools are commercial enterprises as well.

A Dutch missionary, who earlier headed two major Catholic schools, is in Kashmir for around 48 years now. Post-retirement he set up two schools. The government, graciously, permitted him to stay back even after issuing deportation notices, twice.

The association between Christians and Kashmir becam every sentimental when a Kashmiri journalist wrote ‘Christ in Kashmir’in 1973 suggesting Jesus survived crucifixion and later died in Kashmir.

This is contrary to the Muslim belief that God intervened and Jesus ascended the heavens at the time of crucifixion.However, a lot has been written about Jesus being buried at Rozbal in Srinagar. Fida Mohammad Husnain, former director of archives is a firm believerthat Jesus actually is buried in Kashmir. He co-authored a book on Rozabal with a Western ‘scholar’. The main argument is that the shrine predates Islam and may not be a Muslim saint as claimed by the host population and the custodians of the shrine.

In 2002 the shrine became the main focus of New York-based writer Suzanne Olsson who wanted exhumation of the remains for DNA sampling, carbon dating and possible shifting to US. Claiming to be the 59th descendant of Jesus, Olsson says the Christ survived crucifixion and lived in France for 30 years and fathered two sons and a daughter with Mary Magdalene. As the American insisted that she would require something for the DNA sampling, shrine custodian Mohammad Amin Ringshawl got the shrine padlocked. He even registered an FIR and got her visa cancelled.

While Olsson has done her book in search of the DNA of her forefathers, there is a $ 20 million film – The Aquarius Gospel- being directed by Hollywood director Drew Heriot to trace Jesus lost years (between 12 and 30) in Kashmir and other places in East suggesting as if he had taken the silk route post crucifixion. From the existing biblical records, there is not a shred of detail about these years in the Christ’s life.

Bible was translated into Kashmir early this year. Predhuman K Joseph Dhar, a Kashmir Pandit who converted in 1984 did the translation for the Bible Society of India. The interest and the presumed connections notwithstanding, the demography of the community in Kashmir bear testimony to the fact that they always remained a negligible minority. There are a number of churches scattered across Kashmir especially at tourist places but those were for European tourists. The host Christian population has always been sub-microscopic.

In the undivided J&K, the census would count them in two categories – the European Christians and the Indian and Anglo-Indian Christians. In 1931, the Christian population in J&K was 2263 of whom 321 were Europeans and in 1941, the last census prior to the division of the state in 1947, there were 3509 Christians including 430 Europeans. No census could take place in 1951 because of the largescale disturbances in the aftermath of the partition.

In 1961, the first post-partition headcount, there were 2848 Christians making barely 0.07 percent of the total population. In 1971, it marginally increased to 7182 (0.16 percent). In the last pre-militancy headcount carried out in 1981, there was actually no increase in their numbers. They counted only 8481 which reduced their overall proportion to the total population to 0.14 percent. The first post-militancy census of 2001 exhibits a different picture. They counted 20299, which is 0.20 percent of the total population.

Christian missionaries had worked rigorously in parts of Jammu amongst the scheduled castes and found a lot of acceptability. But in 2001, for the first time, they were seen scattered over the length and breadth of the state beyond the cities of Jammu and Srinagar. In Islamabad, for instance, their population surged from 36 to 290, in Pulwama from zero to 625, in Baramulla from 106 to 527, in Kupwara from 19 to 545, in Poonch from 48 to 238 and in Srinagar 209 to 1529. With the highest literacy rate of 74.8 percent, the community has exhibited a massive growth despite having mere 594 sex ratio amongst adults and 834 in children.

The growth, however, exhibited an interesting trend. In Kashmir’s now-10 districts, there are 3757 Christians but only 480 are females which indicate that most of the males are recent converts to the faith. Only 123 of their members fall under 0-6 age group. In Budgam where 178 Christians live only six are females. In Kupwara they have only 11 females for 534 males and in Srinagar where they have a sizable population of 1592 only 151 are females. In Kargil, the Muslim dominated district of Ladakh there are 71 Christians of them only one is female.The gender ratio among the Christians is revealing.

While the results of the 2011 headcount are awaited, the numbers about their population could still be misleading. This is what a UK based Christian organization Asialink (www.asialink .org.uk) reports: “Unofficial reports say that more than 10,000 people have converted to Christianity in Kashmir since 1990. Not all of these will be genuine believers.

It would be a huge step for a Kashmiri to convert, and some are more interested in talking about their problems than in real salvation. Outreach is still very limited and tends not to be in the Muslim controlled war-torn areas. Nevertheless, it is also true that there are more Christians in Kashmir than on record. The number goes into the thousands in the rural areas. Specific progress is often best left undocumented.”

But numbers are not a problem, says Moulana Mohammad Rehmatuallh, who runs Dar-ul-Aloom Rahimiya in Bandipore. “We are fighting a strange kind of deceit,” he said. The seven persons who were baptized by Khanna, Moulna says, immediately applied for registration of an NGO and the district administration cleared it. “They named it Khidmat-e-Khalqullah and within days started identifying their targets from the destitute in Tral and they started making efforts of converting them as well,” he said while showing the forms and the entire file of the registration process of the NGO. “The problem is that Khidmat-e-Khalqullah sounds a Muslim name but is actually not a Muslim organization.”

The Moulana says that he has come across a number of young females in areas of Safapora belt who were supported by specific NGOs in setting up sewing units after they agreed to sign forms that they are Christians. “I have met most of the families and they have stopped interacting with these NGOs,” he said. “But there are a number of schools which are run by people having Muslim names but are converts and in certain cases the names of the schools are really misleading.”

Denials dished out by Christian community leaders from Amritsar to Srinagar notwithstanding, the clergy and police are now looking into various spheres “routine” activities. “We have been told that a number of intellectuals were flown out of the Kashmir by the missionaries in the name of peacemaking on Kashmir,” said Moulana Rehmatuallh. “There are a number of NGOs, schools (other than the established ones) which may require investigation in coming days.” Even Mufti Bashiruddin was recently quoted saying that his ‘court’ is summoning some “intellectuals” who are being suspected of aiding certain NGOs lacking bonafide objectives.

But not everybody is in total agreement with the clergy that the missionaries are the sole issue. Some have suggested the majority community look inwards. “If somebody agrees to change faith, it essentially means he or she has weak foundations and upbringing,” said a journalist who wishes to remain anonymous. “Missionaries have globally used destitution as the best stage to work and Kashmir has it in abundance but faith usually is not a commodity.” Even the Muslim clergy needs to look into the corruption within.“When individuals barter faith for money, it is no faith,” says Nazir Ahmad, a college student. “Names and numbers do not always define faith of a region. Does it?”

About Author

A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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