BARAMULLA, India — The local bishop and government official in the Indian side of Kashmir were about to lead 2,000 people in an anniversary celebration of a Catholic mission when the ground started shaking.
The powerful earthquake struck at 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 8, moments before the scheduled celebration of the centenary of the founding of the first Catholic mission in Kashmir at Baramulla. It left tens of thousands of people in the Himalayan valley across India and Pakistan dead and millions homeless.
There were no casualties in Baramulla, however, where Bishop Peter Celestine Elampassery of Jammu-Srinagar and the state governor of Jammu and Kashmir, S. K. Sinha, a Hindu, were about to kick off the celebration at St. Joseph's Church.
“We were really shocked, and the children started crying and running away,” the bishop told the Register. He said the school building was “swaying when we were about to start the function.”
But the area was spared any major damage, and Bishop Elampassery is sure that the quake was “a wake up call from God for us. We need to be more faithful and dedicated to our mission.”
Baramulla lies in an area where Islam is the dominant religion. It is a region that borders Muslim majority Pakistan and has been known in recent years for Islamic militancy.
The Church's numbers in Muslim majority Kashmir have remained stagnant since the Mill Hill Missionaries set up the first Catholic mission in 1905 at Baramulla, about 37 miles west of Srinagar, capital of the Indian side of Kashmir. St. Joseph's remains the lone Catholic parish in Baramulla, with only two dozen Catholic families among its 1.2 million people. Its Catholic school is the premier educational institution in the district, drawing its students from outside the region as well.
“It was a divine sign to make the Church reflect on its mission here,” said the bishop, a Capuchin Franciscan who had just returned from a two-month visit to Europe the night before the temblor.
“This [Kashmir] is a region that has witnessed much bloodshed, where healing has to take place,” he added.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since the British colonial rulers partitioned the sub-continent into Muslim majority Pakistan and Hindu majority India in 1947.
More than 30,000 people, including thousands of civilians, have been killed in the troubled region since the 1990s. This followed a rise in separatist activity in the Indian-held part of Muslim majority Kashmir with Pakistani militants crossing over the porous “Line of Control” in troubled Kashmir.
Good Out of Bad
After the quake, St. Joseph's school was turned into the operational base for the Church's relief work in the region. The quake claimed nearly 40,000 lives in Pakistan — most of them in the Kashmir region under Pakistani control. Casualties on the Indian side have exceeded 1,500, despite the thin population in the vast mountain stretch on the Indian side.
The quake brought many Church leaders to the area, noted Charlie Rath, a local Christian and active Church volunteer with the parish who runs a medical shop in Baramulla.
In spite of the tragedy, a local nun focused on the good that the event brought to St. Joseph's Hospital, run by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Baramulla. The popular, 70-bed hospital had been struggling to find a full-time doctor since the death two years ago of Sister Melanie, a member of the congregation and a medical doctor.
The health commission of the Indian Catholic Bishops Conference rushed medical teams to Baramulla to attend to quake victims being brought to the hospital for treatment.
“I am very happy now because we have now three doctors at the hospital,” Sister Elaine Nazareth, superior of the Franciscan convent, told the Register Oct. 14. She considered that a kind of “resurrection” for the hospital and commented, “I have no doubt that God had his plans to mark our centenary in a special way.”
Sister Nazareth said the centenary celebration was originally planned for this August and was postponed to Oct. 8.
As the Church relief work gathers momentum, dozens of relief workers from the Bishops Conference, Caritas India, Catholic Relief Services and religious congregations, including Blessed Teresa of Calcutta's Missionaries of Charity, have rushed to Baramulla.
When this reporter left Baramulla on the sixth day after the quake, the number of volunteers and Church officials from outside has swelled the camp of Catholic relief workers to more than 60, fanning out every morning to inaccessible villages with relief material, medicines and words of consolation.
Anto Akkara is based in New Delhi, India.
- October 23-29, 2005