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Sharia court sends out a challenge

Kashmir Christians see bleak outlook as Muslim body exerts growing power

Sharia court sends out a challenge
John Dayal, New Delhi

January 30, 2012

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The Srinagar sharia court’s directive to the Jammu and Kashmir state government last week to expel three pastors and takeover two schools run by the Church of North India has revived memories of the 1985 exodus of Hindu Kashmiri Pundits. Of the three pastors -- Rev C M Khanna and Rev Gayoor Masei of the Church of North India and Catholic Mill Hill missionary Fr Jim Borst -- Rev Khanna is on bail following his arrest in December and all three are reported safe somewhere outside the Kashmir Valley. There is no congruence, no real similarities in the situation of the Hindus and the Christians in the Kashmir Valley – one of the state’s four regions, and the only one which is now almost entirely Muslim. Over 300,000 Pundits fled the valley in 1985 in the face of violence and coercion by militant and terrorist groups, many of them controlled by Pakistan-based terror organizations. The elected government of the state was then sympathetic to the Pundits, though powerless in the face of the armed might of extremist groups. The government, this time around, seems to have succumbed to religious pressure and handed over its powers to the sharia court and to the few orthodox and fundamentalist groups that run the 200-year-old advisory organization. Christian Human rights organizations, including the All India Christian Council and the Evangelical Fellowship of India, say it is almost as if the government has accepted the writ of the court and made its rulings applicable as the laws of the land. The Christian community maintains it does not come under the jurisdiction of the court which is for Muslims only, and on a voluntary basis too. Christian organizations in India have come face to face with the implications the special position of Jammu and Kashmir State in the Indian Federation has because of the circumstances of its ceding to India during the 1947 partition. The state has its own penal code, modeled on the one in India. It does not have a minorities commission or any structure to assure protection for religious and ethnic minority groups. The National Human Rights Commission and other Federal organizations cannot even comment on its internal affairs. Above all, no Indian civil society group is willing to send a fact finding team or investigate the situation, pleading the “sensitive nature” of peace in the valley where the local population is in a state of rebellion against New Delhi. In fact, barring two journalists, no one has written against the recent fatwa of the sharia court, and no major or minor Muslim organization in India has provided help or offered to mediate. This has made the isolation of the small Christian community so severe and their trauma so acute. The local police have been acting, seemingly, only at the behest of the sharia court. This week it arrested five people who allegedly converted to Christianity and “were going to a church to receive financial emoluments,” as the local media, enthusiastically involved in incriminating the church, reported. Those arrested were identified as Ghulam Hassan Dar and Abdul Hamid Sofi from Khag Budgam, and Feroz Ahmad Khan, Riyaz Ahmad Mir and Mohammad Ashraf Wani from Bandipora. Their fate is not known. The police in December had arrested Rev Khanna at his home after the priest had been interrogated by the sharia court for seven hours for allegedly baptizing several Muslims youths. These conversions were filmed on mobile phones by several people present, and then leaked. Footage of the baptisms was also widely circulated. Also publicized was an account by a young man who said he had been seduced by the pastor’s daughter, made to drink pig’s blood and then converted. The story was played up by the local media and denied by the pastor. A Christian fact finding team from New Delhi which met Rev Khanna, several Muslim converts, the Mirwaiz and Grand Mufti of Kashmir, found little of substance in the allegations. They, however, found the situation for Christians was very serious indeed, and the community, Catholic and Protestant, was in a state of panic. In its report it said: “Apart from the safety and security of Pastor Khanna, his family and his parishioners, old and new, we were also apprehensive about the state of justice in the valley where the Bar Association had apparently announced they would not defend the pastor. Local lawyers also disturbed proceedings when Pastor Khanna’s bail petition was eventually heard by the judge, who eventually granted Pastor Khanna’s release on bail on December 1.” Pastor Khanna said he had been approached many times by Muslims who asked to be converted. He also said he had always asked them why they wanted to be Christians. He said they always replied that they were not getting any help or assistance from the Islamic leadership. They had heard that the Church helped Christians materially. He said he had always turned away such people. Father Thomas Mathew of the Catholic Church had similar experiences. He, too, turned them away. Christian clergy also allege some of those seeking conversion were undercover police and others had been sent by Islamic groups to trap priests. The fact finding group’s report felt the seeds of confrontation with the Christian community lies within a powerful segment of the Islamic clergy which is looking to compete for influence with the state government, other political groups, the military and political parties. The vast majority of Kashmiris in the valley, all Muslim, are peaceful people adhering to a soft and melodious Sufi Islam, far removed from the stridency of Wahabism espoused  by the extremist groups.   John Dayal is the general-secretary of All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government's National Integration Council
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