Banished: Shari’a Court Orders 3 Christian Pastors and Catholic Missionary Out of India's Kashmir

By Patrick Goodenough | February 3, 2012 | 5:59 AM EST

Indian Christians take part in a Christmas service at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Hyderabad last December. Christians account for just 2.3 percent of India's 1.17

(CNSNews.com) – India’s Christian minority has long faced harassment at the hands of militant Hindus, but in the Indian-controlled portion of Muslim-majority Kashmir the threat is coming from Islamic fundamentalists.

A “shari’a court” in Srinagar, capital of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state, has issued a decree expelling four pastors from the territory, after accusing them of using financial inducements to convert young Muslims to Christianity.

Although the court has no legal jurisdiction over non-Muslims, political parties have reportedly remained silent; Indian churches have been alone in protesting the ruling.

“Surprisingly the political class has not spoken a word about it [the court ruling], which is disastrous,” Catholic Bishops' Conference of India president Cardinal Oswald Gracias said this week.

“We are against forced conversions and careful over somebody wanting to change his or her religion,” he said.

Gracias noted that Islamic courts have no authority over adherents of other faiths. “If we allow this then you will have parallel systems, which is not possible in a democratic country.”

The issue came up during a gathering in Bangalore of Catholic bishops, with a leading sociologist urging the church Thursday to do more to counter the allegation that Christianity uses fraudulent means to win converts.

The controversy erupted after a video emerged last November showing a Protestant pastor in Srinagar, Chander Khanna, baptizing young Kashmiri men.

The shari’a court then “summoned” the pastor and accused him of luring Muslims to convert by offering them money. Khanna made his case to a room of Islamic scholars, but two days later police arrested him on charges of fomenting trouble between religious groups.

The Church of North India, Khanna’s denomination, wrote to the president and prime minister, appealing for intervention.

Released on bail by a civil court after 10 days in custody, the pastor was then brought before the shari’a tribunal.

On January 11, the Islamic court’s deputy mufti, Nasirul Islam, said in a statement it had been proved beyond doubt that Khanna and accomplices had lured Muslims to change their religion.

The court several days later issued a fatwa (religious ruling) ordering the expulsion of Khanna and two other Protestant pastors, and a 79 year-old Dutch Catholic missionary, Jim Borst, who has worked in Kashmir for half a century.

“Khanna and his associates have been found guilty of spreading communal disaffection and were involved in immoral activities,” the ruling stated. “They are ordered to be expelled from the state.”

This week the court responded to some local criticism of the fatwa by issuing a statement defending its decision.

“It was agonizing to note that some of our boys and girls were being converted to Christianity by unethical allurements and immoral inducements,” the statement said. “Everyone has a right to criticize any individual or his actions but one cannot do so if such criticism encourages blasphemy and irreverent references to prophet Muhammad.”

The court is also investigating the principal of a local Christian missionary school, but says it has not imposed a ban on such schools operating in Kashmir, which it said “have contributed a lot to spread education in the state.”

However, the court has directed the schools to allocate a class for Islamic studies, “given the Muslim majority character” in the region. It also wants the Christian schools to use an Islamic morning prayer and says state government officials should “monitor” the schools’ activities.

Indian Christian leaders who investigated the allegations against Khanna said they found no evidence that he was offering inducements to convert.

The head of the Church of North India, Bishop Pradeep Samantaroy, said the converts seen being baptized in the video clip had attended the church for more than a year and had expressed a wish to be baptized. In police interviews the converts denied accusations of inducements.

The Evangelical Fellowship of India expressed concern that the shari’a court ruling “may encourage extremist elements to indulge in violence in the region which so urgently needs an environment of peace for its development and security.”

It urged the state government, religious and civil society leaders in Jammu and Kashmir to ensure the rights of minorities were respected and their welfare assured.

‘Force, fraud or inducement’

Christians account for just 2.3 per cent of the population of predominantly Hindu India.

At the urging of militant Hindu organizations, a number of Indian states have passed “anti-conversion” laws. (Jammu and Kashmir is not among them. Khanna was instead accused under penal code articles relating to promoting enmity between communal groups and insulting religious beliefs.)

The laws target conversions through force, fraud or inducement.

Hinduism’s strict social hierarchical system places at the bottom of the caste ladder so-called “untouchables” or “dalits.” One of the reasons some Hindus give for their decision to convert to Christianity is to escape from the caste system and enjoy a sense of social equality.

But Christians are frequently accused by Hindu radicals of forcing or inducing poor Hindus, including Dalits, to convert.

One such group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), charges that Indian missionaries of bribing poor Hindus to convert by offering them food, education or other incentives.

Hundreds of attacks on Christians have been reported, many of them blamed on RSS and similar groups.

In 2008 the eastern state of Orissa saw some of the worst violence against Christians in India’s history, as Hindu mobs torched homes and churches. Scores of Christians were killed and tens of thousands fled their homes.

In 1999, an Australian missionary and his two young sons were burnt to death by a mob in Orissa as they slept in their car.

Last November, a senior leader of another fundamentalist group, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), caused a stir when he called for a new constitution under which anyone who converts Hindus should be beheaded. Both RSS and VHP are affiliated with one of India’s major parties, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has called on the State Department to add India to a watch list – one step short of a designation as a “country of particular concern” because of violations of religious freedom.

In its most recent annual report, the commission – an independent body that gives recommendations to the executive and legislative branches – urged the U.S. government to encourage the Indian government “to make more vigorous and effective efforts to halt violent attacks against members of religious minorities, as well as women and individuals deemed to be of lower caste.”

The U.S. should also encourage India, it said, to “conduct timely investigations and prosecutions of individuals alleged to have perpetrated violence; hold state governments and officials accountable for violence and unlawful acts in their states; remove ‘anti-conversion’ laws and enact policies that encourage religious tolerance in accordance with India‘s rich history of religious pluralism.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow