Kashmiri Christians Revert: The Fracas Over Faith

Mass_kashmirJ & K, March 01, 2012: Fayaz Ahmad, who had a brief fling with Christianity, is hunting down “forced converts” in the Valley and bringing them back to the fold.

Moulvi Fayaz Ahmad was at Jharsuguda, Odisha, in January 1999 when Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were burnt to death by right-wing fanatic Dara Singh. Then, Ahmad was a pastor, staying at a nearby church. He had converted to Christianity a few years ago and his name was Father Isaac. Back now as a Muslim with a thick flowing beard, he is at the forefront of the campaign against “forcible conversions” in Kashmir.

Ahmad’s day begins at the crack of dawn when he and his colleagues set off from the Dar-ul-Uloom seminary in Srinagar in search of converts living across the Valley and tries to prevail on them to return to their original faith. The places can be as far off as the villages along the Line of Control in Uri and Kupwara, hamlets in central and south Kashmir and areas in downtown Srinagar.

He returns a satisfied man to the Darul-Uloom in the evening. “With God’s grace, I’m able to persuade and reconvert them back to Islam,” claims Ahmad.

By his estimate, Ahmad has met around 300 converts over the past several months after the conversion issue hit the headlines last summer. His advantage is that he knows most of them personally from his days as a Christian missionary.

Ahmad’s modus operandi is simple. His anti-conversion band of preachers arrive unannounced at a convert’s house, ask him privately to recount his story and once certain of his apostasy, seek his return to Islam. “We urge him to recite Kalima again to re-enter Islam,” says Ahmad.

Ahmad was once an ardent Catholic himself, even though he insists he was converted “by way of deception”. After his conversion in the mid-1990s, he was sent to Don Bosco School in New Delhi to study. He soon rose to become a pastor with, according to him, enough influence to get a Kashmiri student admitted to the leading missionary school free of cost.

But this is the period of Ahmad’s life that he’s trying hard to forget. “I don’t want to talk about my past. It is painful,” he says. “I converted in all innocence. I hardly understood Islam and adopted Christianity through a mix of persuasion and curiosity. But once converted, I didn’t entirely let go of my Muslim moorings and often felt uneasy and conflicted about the change of faith. Then, I reached my moment of truth and decided to reconvert.”

He returned home to north Kashmir where his maternal uncle handed him over to a Deobandi seminary. However, his re-initiation into Islam wasn’t easy. The head of the seminary made him the exclusive focus of attention, dedicating his entire Friday sermons to revival of Islamic faith in him to “help him completely disavow his Christian influences”. Within a few months, Ahmad was ready in his new avatar of a moulvi. He grew a long beard and wore a white headdress. His mission is to arrest the “tide of conversions” afflicting the majority religion in the Valley.

Ahmad is at the centre of an acrimonious religious war that has emerged as the latest trip wire in the Valley. Father CM Khanna of the Protestant All Saints Church says Ahmad is exposing the converts to society’s gaze, shaming them to reconvert. “He is responsible for the situation coming to this pass. He identifies the converts and then uses coercion to force them to reconvert,” alleges Khanna.

Khanna has reason to be angry. In the Sharia court of Kashmir’s Grand Mufti Bashir-ud-din, it was Ahmad who challenged his assertion that the conversions in the Valley were voluntary. The court later issued a fatwa against Khanna and two other priests, Jim Borst and Gayoor Maseeh, calling on them to quit Kashmir.

But Ahmad remains unfazed. “I can prove that the conversions are engineered through inducements. There are many indigent families who have been persuaded to convert in lieu of humanitarian help,” he says.

He has collected many videos where the alleged converts confess to having changed their faith following offer of help from missionaries. One such video shows a 12-yearold boy from Good Shepherd School alleging on camera that he was baptised. “Let them disprove these stories first if they say conversions are volitional,” says Ahmad.

But are there no cases of voluntary conversions in the Valley then? “There are,” agrees Moulvi Hamid, who accompanies Ahmad on his daily missions. “But they constitute a very small percentage.”

Khanna, who lives in Jammu, dismisses this reasoning. “How can it be so? To say that conversions are forced by using money is like insulting the integrity of Kashmiris,” he says. “Besides, we don’t have unlimited amounts of money to hand out. We don’t work in the field. It is the people themselves who come to us looking for peace. We have no sona, chandi (gold and silver). We only have the Lord’s gospel. And we can’t refuse.”

MuftiBUT THIS hardly settles the controversy that arose last summer following the surfacing of a video showing Khanna baptising a group of Kashmiri youth at All Saints Church. In fact, it is only getting more complex by the day with the potential to spill over on to the streets.

Mufti Bashir-ud-din has threatened to issue more fatwas if the missionary schools in the Valley — some of them over a century-old and hailed as harbingers of modern education in the state — do not make the desired changes in their management. This includes the involvement of the state government in the management and teaching of Islamic studies to Muslim students.

In 2005, in the first such attack, suspected militants gunned down alleged convert Bashir Ahmad Tantray of Pattan in north Kashmir. Earlier, a female teacher from West Bengal was killed and another critically injured when a grenade was lobbed at a south Kashmir missionary school. Even though the issue subsequently died down with the government sending a private word to missionaries not to do anything to draw public attention, it is now again out in the open.

Across the Valley, the growing resentment over conversions is feeding into the larger political cauldron, which sees conversions as part of an elaborate gameplan to change the Valley’s demography. There are fears that any further politicisation of the issue could end up making it a side cause of the separatist struggle, even as the hawkish proponent of this ideology Syed Ali Shah Geelani may have temporarily chosen to look the other way.

Hurriyat (G) leader Geelani rejected the Sharia court’s fatwa while blaming the majority community for not addressing the social causes underpinning conversions. However, he had earlier termed conversions “as a systematic exploitation of the poverty in Kashmir”.

Khanna brushes these fears aside. “There are less than 450 Christians in the Valley, around 300 with All Saints Church and over 100 with Holy Family Catholic Church. What sort of demographic threat do they constitute?” asks Khanna.

But this explanation hardly placates Muslim religious outfits in a state where perception outweighs statistics. Their estimates of converts vary from 10,000 to 20,000. “We are still identifying the converts in every nook and cranny of the Valley. Every convert names five others and the effort to reach them has become endless. This gives us a sense of their deep penetration,” says Ahmad.

In his room at the Dar-ul-Uloom, Ahmad and his colleagues emphasise the urgent need to “safeguard their religion”. Sitting around the collected evangelical literature and the video evidence, they say that Muslims in the Valley need to rise to the new challenge. “We are not against the propagation of Christianity in Kashmir. Let them do it in the open. We will welcome it. But we will not tolerate clandestine conversions,” warns Ahmad.

And while he says it, the atmosphere in the room, which frames him, turns into a gripping reflection of the larger tension brewing outside.

– riyaz wani, tehelka

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