Conversion row torments Kashmiri
Christians By Sudha
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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