Christians safe in Muslim-majority Kashmir: Bishop

Peace can only return to Kashmir through dialogue rather than bullets
Christians safe in Muslim-majority Kashmir: Bishop

Bishop Ivan Pereira of Jammu-Srinagar says the minuscule Christian community in Kashmir is safest among the majority Muslim population in state. (Photo by Umar Manzoor Shah)


Shaded green patches of St. Mary's Garrison Church on Jammu's Satrwari Road offer respite from the heat.

A woman at the church's main gate, holding a newborn baby, asks the watchman to let her meet Bishop Ivan Pereira, who is based in the mountainous north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir bordering Pakistan and China.

The woman and her husband have come straight from a maternity hospital hoping the bishop will bless their infant son. 

Their wish is fulfilled when Bishop Pereira greets them at reception, places his right hand on infant's head and mutters a prayer.

In his office, two young women who have finished their law courses are seeking the bishop's blessing ahead of their first day in the court.

"Represent the unrepresented, never ever turn your heads away from the poor," the bishop tells them before saying farewell.

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Bishop Pereira, 53, has already spent more than half his life in the region, although he was born to traditional Catholic parents in the Vasai area of western Maharashtra state. He was ordained a priest in the Jammu-Srinagar Diocese in 1993. 

He became bishop of the diocese in 2015 with the aim of increasing religiosity among the Catholic community.

"Change will come only through education," he says by way of explanation of his focus on the needs of young people.

Christians constitute a tiny minority in the state of 12.5 million mostly Muslims.

There are only about 20,000 Christians, mostly Catholics.

Almost all local Catholics hail from economically and educationally disadvantaged Dalit communities, formerly known as untouchables.

However, Bishop Pereira said they faced no danger, despite secessionist violence during the past three decades.

"Christians weren't targeted or intimated," the bishop said, adding that Christians and Muslims live in harmony with other faiths.

He noted that church's social services are available to all, not just Catholics.

The diocese runs four schools for mentally and physically challenged children. It also manages five hospitals where the poor are treated free of cost.

Aiming to empower village women, the diocese has organized 784 self-help groups where women are trained to generate income from small enterprises.

And villagers are assisted to learn from each other on issues such as health and farming.


Dialogue for peaceful Kashmir

Bishop Pereira believes peace can only return to Kashmir through dialogue rather than bullets and bombs.

Three decades of violence have claimed an estimated 100,000 lives of militants, army personnel and civilians. This year, up until August, 252 people had died during various violent incidents. 

Some separatists argue that the Muslim-majority region should have become part of Pakistan when British India was divided to create India and Pakistan. Others want to make it an independent state. 

Both India and Pakistan claim the Kashmir region and administer different parts of it, resulting in three major wars and myriad skirmishes.

"Those at the helm need to sit together and discus what should be done to save future generations from decades of animosity and bloodshed," the bishop said.

Protagonists needed to compromise for the greater common good.

Bishop Pereira added that Kashmiri youth at risk of radicalization should be shown alternatives through an exchange of ideas. 

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