The sharia court in Muslim-majority Kashmir has no constitutional or legal authority. But its recent verdict ordering the expulsion of five Christians from the troubled Indian side of Kashmir has sent alarm bells ringing among Christians in India.
Apart from ordering the expulsion of the Christians, the court also directed the government of Jammu and Kashmir to take over the management of the Christian missionary schools besides monitoring their activities.
Those ordered to be expelled include Father Jim Borst of the Dutch Mill Hill Missionaries, who has been based in Kashmir since 1963.
“This is much more than conversion. It is humiliating and certainly threatening for us,” Bishop Peter Celestine Elampassery of Jammu-Srinagar told the Register Jan. 27, reacting to the verdict.
Srinagar is the capital of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is nestled in the Himalayas.
On Jan. 19, the court ordered the expulsion of Father Borst, along with two Protestant pastors and their wives, accusing them of “luring the (Kashmir) valley Muslims to Christianity.”
The verdict focused more on Pastor Chander Mani Khanna of the Protestant All Saints Church at Srinagar and pronounced him guilty of conversion. The pastor of the Church of North India had been arrested in November by state police on the dubious charge of “fomenting communal trouble” after Muslim groups pressed charges against him. Though the civil court released him on bail, the sharia court went ahead with its own trial.
“Khanna and his associates have been found guilty of spreading communal disaffection and were involved in immoral activities. They are ordered to be expelled from the state,” deputy grand mufti of Jammu and Kashmir, Nasir-ul-Islam, said Jan.19 while reading the verdict of the sharia court.
Father Borst, a well-known retreat preacher, runs the Good Shepherd School at Pulwama. The school had been partially burnt during widespread protests against the desecration of the Quran in the United States during the 9/11 anniversary in 2010.
Church leaders, Christians groups and Kashmiri Christians all have expressed alarm over the sharia court pronouncement and the subsequent Christian bashing in the local media, despite the Kashmir Valley having fewer than 400 Christians among 4 million Muslims.
“Kashmir Zealots Push Christians Into Valley of Fear” read the headline in The Times of India, the nation’s largest English daily, on Jan. 23.
The report said that even Juan Marcos Troia, an Argentinian football coach developing soccer in Kashmir and training local youth, is now facing the heat. State football association officials have questioned him about the funding for his clubs. While a whisper campaign is on against the “Christian” coach by Islamic fundamentalists, his house has already been vandalized.
“This is not a good development,” Bishop Elampassery said while on a visit to the Muslim heartland of Srinagar. “In the 1970s, they targeted Sikhs, and from 1980 they went after the Hindus. It looks like now they want to target us.”
In the entire Kashmir Valley, there are only about half a dozen churches, half a dozen Christian schools and a couple of Christian hospitals.
“What is going on there right now is the plan to scare away the remaining Christians from Kashmir. They want to make it an exclusive Muslim area,” asserted Predhuman Joseph Dhar, a Kashmiri Catholic from a Hindu background.
Dhar, a journalist, teacher and scholar who has translated the Bible into Kashmiri, recalled that he fled Kashmir with his family in January 1990 after mosques across the Kashmir Valley began using their loudspeakers to order Hindus to leave the Muslim-majority region.
Subsequently, more than 400,000 Hindus in Kashmir fled the region to the Hindu-majority Jammu and other parts of India. Though he has been a Catholic since 1984, when his entire family of six embraced the Christian faith, Dhar too fled Kashmir.
“Right now there are only less than 100 Christians of Kashmiri origin in the valley. Others are migrant Christians,” pointed out Dhar.
“Still, concocted reports are appearing in the Kashmir media targeting us,” said Dhar. The latest in this series, he said, is the story of the Jan. 22 arrest of four “recent converts” as they were going to collect wages from the church.
“This is an absolutely concocted story and explains the hidden agenda behind the ongoing anti-Christian propaganda,” pointed out Dhar.
The Times of India reported that an article titled “Apostasy Unveiled” appeared in Kashmir’s leading English daily a day after the sharia court verdict, giving a lurid account purportedly of the alleged conversion of a Muslim youth, enticed with money, liquor and a young girl.
“We (the Christians) are not bound by the pronouncements of the sharia court,” said John Dayal, a Catholic and general secretary of the All India Christian Council.
“Even the conversion charge against the pastor is baseless,” said Dayal, who had visited Kashmir with an ecumenical fact-finding team and met Pastor Khanna in the wake of the conversion controversy.
As for the sharia court demanding government control of half a dozen Christian schools in the Kashmir Valley, Dayal said that the demand is “irrational,” as the overwhelming majority of the students and even teachers in the Christian schools in Kashmir are Muslims.
However, Dayal pointed out that the ongoing propaganda against Christians “does not reflect the will of the Muslim majority.” It is the outcome of competing Islamic groups trying to cash in on anything that would enhance their Islamic nationalist campaign “in a turbulent situation.”
The Muslim-majority Indian side of Kashmir is riddled with a vocal and bloody campaign for secession from the Indian union, which has claimed more than 30,000 lives since 1990, and a merger with Muslim-majority Pakistan, which controls part of Kashmir.
Meanwhile, Hmar Tlomte Sangliana, vice chairman of the autonomous National Commission for Minorities, told the Register that “Christians should not overreact to the developments.”
“Leaders of both communities should sit together and sort out the misunderstanding,” said Sangliana, a former member of the national parliament and a Presbyterian.
However, Christian groups like Mumbai-based Catholic Secular Forum are not prepared to ignore the danger in Kashmir.
In a white paper on the Kashmir situation, the Catholic Secular Forum pointed out that between 1989 and 1992, the majority of Hindus and Christians of Hindu origin in Kashmir had been “forced out of their homes by the Islamist terrorists. Men were murdered, women were raped, property was destroyed, and threats were issued.”
“The situation in Kashmir is serious. We are shocked by the silence of the state and central (federal) governments on this,” Joseph Dias, Catholic Secular Forum general secretary, told the Register.
“Christians in the Kashmir Valley face persecution from a hostile neighbor, local Islamic communalists (fundamentalists), fundamentalist courts, extremists/terrorists … state government which has decided it cannot act,” lamented the Catholic group leader, reminding the federal government “to look at the situation more seriously.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.