Missionaries bring aid, controversy to Kashmir

The influx of Christian evangelists complicates an

already volatile religious equation, critics say

By Janaki Kremmer | Special to The Christian Science



NEW DELHI  For a decade now, Christian missionary

groups have been flocking to the conflicted province

of Kashmir, bringing medicine, school books, and

self-help programs.

"Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir are fighting too much

... Christians help us to get jobs and they teach us

love," says Zubaida Hameed, a student at Srinagar

University. "This is good for our people."

But some observers worry that the influx of Christian

evangelists may be exacerbating a volatile situation

in India's northernmost state, where up to 50,000

people have died in sectarian violence. Sandwiched

between India and Pakistan, this territory is the

cause of two wars between the two neighbors. Armed

militants are alleged to sneak across the border from

Pakistan to foment trouble in the valley. Just last

month 24 Hindus were killed in Kashmir, allegedly by

Muslim militants.

"The time is not ripe for promoting and spreading a

third religion in the valley - it will have bad

consequences," says Prashant Dikshit, the deputy

director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Local Christians like Pastor Leslie Richards are also

increasingly agitated by the presence of the new

evangelists, who they believe are more interested in

conversions than social work. Mr. Richards says local

Muslims receive cash if they agree to convert. "The

conversions they are doing are Biblically wrong ...

this is not good for the local Christians, who for

centuries have shared cordial relations with the local

Muslims here," Richards told the Indian Express


But Neethi Rajan, an evangelist with the Assemblies of

God, rejects the criticism: "There is nothing wrong

with spreading the word of Christ, and I assure you we

are not bribing or exploiting anyone to come to our


The Rev. Chander Mani Khanna, pastor of the Anglican

All Saints Church in Srinagar, is skeptical of the

large numbers of newly converted Christians being

tossed about - and of claims that many conversions are

for cash. "Of course, I believe that there are some

black sheep in the fold - some evangelists who use

money as a lure - but I can tell you that I have been

here in Srinagar since July 2002, and I have only

converted one person - so even if there are a few

others in new churches, it is hardly a case of mass


"Most of these young Muslims would be too scared to

convert - too scared to tell their families," Khanna

adds. ""The young people come to hear sermons mainly

to escape from the cycle of violence in their lives -

it just gives them an outlet and also gives them

someone to talk to."

Unofficial reports say that more than 10,000 people

have converted to Christianity in Kashmir since 1990.

"There are more Christians in Kashmir than on the

record," says Premi Gergan, a prominent Christian in

Kashmir, told Christianitytoday.com last year. "The

number goes into the thousands in the rural areas. We

don't want to advertise. It has serious

repercussions." In the past, right-wing Hindu groups

from upper castes have reacted aggressively against

missionaries who attract lower-caste Hindus and other

groups trying to escape their unhappy place in Indian

society. In 1999 an Australian missionary and his two

sons were killed by Hindu extremists in the

northeastern state of Orissa because he was reported

to have converted hundreds of poor, tribal people in

the area.

Officials estimate that only 2.18 percent of the

Indian population is Christian, and the figure is


Most of the Christian missionary groups are funded by

parent groups in the West, including the United

States, Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands. Most

focus their efforts on the rural poor and areas

bordering Srinagar, a city of about 750,000 people.

Ramesh Landge, founder of the Cooperative Outreach of

India, a Christian nongovernmental organization based

in New Delhi which gets some of its funding from the

Germantown Baptist Church in Tennessee, recently

brought 15 sewing machines to women in Kashmir. "We

try to make people self-reliant," says Mr. Landge.

"These young women - many of them the children of

parents with leprosy, now sew clothes for

schoolchildren." Landge says that social work combined

with the teachings of Christ has done a lot to improve

life for the Kashmiri people.

"It is ridiculous for anyone to be threatened by a few

Christians in Kashmir," says Rev. Dominic Emmanuel,

public affairs spokesman for the Catholic Bishops

Conference of India. "Missionaries will continue to go

where they are needed - where there are earthquakes or

famines or conflict. And Kashmir is just one of those



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