- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 1, 2003

NEW DELHI

In a place where more than 50,000 people have been killed in the name of God, it could be assumed that religion is a dangerous word. But for 20-year-old Akbar Ahmad, who has seen violence between Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir for most of his life, the answer lies very much in the love of God or, more specifically, in the love of Jesus Christ.

“The new Christian groups coming into Kashmir teach us love and try to understand our problems. They also try to help very poor people in Kashmir. They do not talk about fighting or killing. This is a big change for us,” says Mr. Ahmad, who is among a breed of young people looking toward the tide of evangelists in Kashmir as a beacon of hope.

Organizations like the Florida-based Campus Crusade for Christ and the Missouri-based Assemblies of God have been establishing a presence in the valley for 10 years. Most work through local representatives.

They bring schoolbooks, medicines, self-help programs and, most of all, opportunity.

“In the past, most of us had only two choices: Either join the Muslim militancy and take up the gun or leave the state to find work somewhere else,” Mr. Ahmad says.

“But now, I attend discussions with the Christian priests about our family problems and they educate us for free and soon they have promised me work and an allowance,” says Mr. Ahmad, who is happy that someone at last is taking an interest in the welfare of the ordinary folk.

Most of the Christian groups restrict their work among the rural poor and areas bordering Srinagar, a city of about 750,000 people.

One of the Christian workers is Ramesh Landge, founder of the Cooperative Outreach of India, a Christian nongovernmental organization based in New Delhi that receives partial funding from the Tennessee-based Germantown Baptist Church.

Mr. Landge has distributed 15 sewing machines among young women in a small leper colony in Kashmir. “Nobody else will talk to the leper families they are outside the society. So we try and create jobs for them,” Mr. Landge says.

“These young women, many of them who are the children of parents with leprosy but are perfectly healthy themselves, now sew clothes for schoolchildren in the area,” says Mr. Landge, who has been going to the valley since 1993 and believes the Christian groups can do a lot more to help the people of Kashmir.

While preaching the Gospel may bring peace to some minds, it also may bring more bloodshed.

Claim to the verdant valley has been a matter of dispute between India and Pakistan since the British partitioning of the subcontinent in 1947. The two nuclear-armed neighbors have fought three wars two over Kashmir.

Every summer, it is said, hundreds of armed Muslim militants sneak across the border from Pakistan’s “jihadi” training camps to foment trouble in the valley.

“The militants would like to wipe out any people in the state who are not Islamic,” says Kuldip Nayar, a senior political analyst based in New Delhi.

Last month, 24 Hindus, including women and children, were killed in Kashmir, supposedly at the hands of Muslim militants.

While most of the violence has been perpetrated by Hindus and Muslims on each other, the rise of Christianity could add another dimension.

“The local Muslims in Kashmir have traditionally been a liberal lot but in recent times it would be fair to say that factions have developed that would be fearful of another religion gaining ground,” says retired Air Commodore Prashant Dikshit, who is deputy director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Local Christians like Pastor Leslie Richards have become increasingly concerned about the presence of the evangelists, who they believe are more interested in conversions to Christianity than social work.

Mr. Richards says local Muslims are being bribed given cash if they agree to convert. “These types of conversions are not good for the local Christians. … The converts here do it for monetary reasons,” Mr. Richards told the Indian Express newspaper.

The quiet local Christian community, which accounts for less than 1 percent of the state’s total population of 10 million people, is wary of drawing attention.

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,” Premi Gergan, a prominent Christian in Kashmir, told Christianity Today in an article published last year on its Web site, www.christianitytoday.com. “The number goes into the thousands in the rural areas. We don’t want to advertise. It has serious repercussions.”

The Rev. Chander Mani Khanna, head of the All Saints Church, one of the oldest churches in Srinagar and part of the Anglican Church of North India, has a different take on the issue.

“It would be a huge step for these young people to convert, and most of them are more interested in talking about their problems than in conversion,” says Mr. Khanna, who has been counseling young people in Kashmir and has converted only one person in 12 months.

“This idea of mass conversions taking place in the state is totally false.”

However, Mr. Khanna says, the number of young Muslims attending his church services has more than doubled in the last year.

Christian missionaries have had more to fear from right-wing Hindu groups from the upper castes of society who are opposed to the conversions of lower-caste Hindus and other disenfranchised groups trying to escape their place in Indian society.

In 1999, Hindu extremists burned alive Australian missionary Graham Staines, along with his two young sons. Mr. Staines was accused of converting the tribal people of the northeastern state of Orissa.

But officials estimate that only 2.18 percent of the total Indian population is Christian and the figure is declining with every census.

“It’s laughable to say that Christian groups today pose any kind of threat to the Hindu establishment,” says the Rev. Dominic Emmanuel, Public Affairs spokesman for the Catholic Bishops Conference of India.

“But missionaries always try to fulfill a vacuum, and if there is a need in Kashmir then they will surely be expected to go there,” says Father Emmanuel. “It’s their duty.”

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