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Christians Still Living in Fear in Kashmir
BY ANTO AKKARA, REGISTER CORRESPONDENT
BANGALORE, India — The minuscule Christian community in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir is on the edge with Islamic fundamentalists targeting Christians in the wake of U.S. 9/11 protests that included Quran desecrations.
There were similar demonstrations in Iran and Afghanistan.
Hundreds of protesters clashed with security forces in the Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir Sept. 15 when they were prevented from marching to storm a “missionary” school at Mendhar, about 130 miles from Jammu. Four Muslim protesters were killed and more than two dozen injured.
Earlier, on Sept. 13, the troubled state had witnessed widespread violence with irate Muslim mobs targeting scattered Christian centers across the Kashmir valley. Seventeen Muslim protesters were killed by security forces in their bid to keep the protesters away from churches, Christian school and hospitals.
At the end of his general audience Sept. 15, Pope Benedict XVI said he is following the events in the affected countries “with great concern.”
“I pray for the victims and ask that respect for religious freedom and the logic of reconciliation and peace may prevail over hatred and violence,” the Pope stated.
Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to India, Timothy Roemer, expressed dismay over the attacks on Christian targets in India in a press statement on Sept. 13.
Roemer deplored the desecration of the Quran in the United States on Sept. 11 as “disrespectful, intolerant, divisive and unrepresentative of American values.”
The orgy of violence followed the telecast of an Iranian TV program in troubled Kashmir showing visuals of the tearing of the pages of the Quran by some individuals in the United States.
“The situation is very tense, and we are on the edge,” said Bishop Peter Celestine Elampassery of Jammu Srinagar, a diocese that covers the troubled Indian state, on Sept. 15. “But the good news is that all the churches and Christian institutions are being guarded by the police.”
Bishop Elampassery confirmed the government explanation that the widespread protest was triggered by the controversial TV telecast.
In fact, S.S. Kapur, chief secretary of Kashmir state — its highest government official — told the media that most of those 17 killed on Sept. 13 perished when police fired on riotous mobs protesting the Quran desecration. Kapur also said that the anti-Christian violence had nothing to do with the ongoing political protests over government administration in troubled Kashmir.
“The ordinary Muslims would have been carried away by the TV news. But perhaps it [the protests] has more to do with the Kashmir politics,” Bishop Elampassery said. “Nowhere else in the world there has been such strong protest. It [Quran desecration] is being exploited to further the political agenda here.”
The Indian side of Kashmir has been in turmoil in recent months following a spurt in street protests by Muslim mobs seeking to secede from India and unite with Muslim-majority Pakistan, which controls part of Kashmir.
More than 30,000 people, including thousands of civilians, have perished in troubled Kashmir since 1990 in separatist violence.
“But I am happy that, despite such organized violence, the government has shielded our people, churches and institutions,” noted Bishop Elampassery, hailing the government’s determination to ensure the safety of minority Christians, who number fewer than 25,000 among the 10 million people in the state. In the worst-hit Kashmir valley, nestled in the lap of the snow-capped Himalayas, Christians number less than 5,000, with around 2,000 Catholics among them.
Though no physical assaults on Christians have been reported, Tyndale Biscoe School, belonging to a Protestant church, at Tangmarg, near the ski resort of Gulmarg, was torched by irate mobs.
Later in the evening on Sept. 13, Good Shepherd High School at Pulwama was also partially torched by a mob after overpowering the police personnel posted there.
“They also ransacked the entire office and were looking for some documents,” said Bishop Elampassery. The popular Good Shepherd High School is managed by Father Jim Borst, a Dutch Mill Hill missionary who has worked in Kashmir for decades and was recently served his second expulsion notice by the government.
Carmelite Father Mathew Nelladath, principal of Christ School at Poonch in Jammu division, with more than 1,500 students, told the Register that “the security forces were very efficient, and they turned away the mob half a kilometer from our school” on Sept. 13.
“We came to know about it [the attempt to attack] only later,” added Father Nelladath.
However, it was not such a smooth operation for security forces posted near the Protestant John Bishop Memorial hospital at Anantnag in Kashmir Valley. Pradeep Kumar Samantaroy, Church of North India bishop in charge of Kashmir, said that two protesters were shot dead at the gate of the hospital.
That was after the protesters split into two factions — one insisting “It is our hospital. Let us not destroy it,” while another group was bent on destroying the Christian hospital, Bishop Samantaroy said.
Despite the security forces extending round-the-clock protection to Christian centers, Father Sebastian Nagathungal told the Register on Sept. 15 that there was a lot of tension there.
“Protests are still going on, and life is on a standstill here,” said Father Nagathungal, principal of St. Joseph’s School in Baramulla, the oldest and largest school in Kashmir, with more than 2,800 students.
In fact, he said that schools and businesses have remained shut in Kashmir since late June due to widespread political protests over government control and special powers of the Indian Army in the troubled state.
Following the violence with the Quran desecration protests, the state government has shut even the airport at Srinagar [capital of the state], as it is virtually impossible for air travelers to reach the airport, about 16 miles from Srinagar.
Violence against Christian targets was also reported from nearby Punjab state, where a Muslim mob set on fire a Protestant church at Malerkotla and burned a police vehicle, following which police instituted curfew in this town with a large Muslim population.
Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.