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Celebrating Christmas in Kashmir on Razorís Edge

by Haroon Mirani

Dec 25, 2006:

When the church bell striked at 10.30 am in Srinagar's lone Catholic Church to mark inauguration of Christmas prayers, the fierce encounter between rebels and Indian army had already been going on for three consecutive days at Pattan, just forty kilometers north of these couple of dozen unconcerned praying Christians. This is the life in Kashmir, where festivities and death go side by side, no matter what the festival is and who the celebrators are.
Santa Claus in Kashmir
Santa Claus in Kashmir

The attendance, a record of past 17 years, in the church also included number of nervous faces, straightly explaining that somewhere in their inner self they always smell some unknown threat. Not more is known about couple of hundred Christians in this beautiful valley of Kashmir, where the news headlines are usually the patents of violence.

Christians are a rare commodity in Kashmir and when they celebrate a festival like Christmas in Kashmir, it surely is object of curiosity for the majority Muslim population, who otherwise are more inclined to carve their ways through the gun battles, grenade attacks and other violent activities. The Christmas too was not without its share, as the Indian army and militants were engaged in a lethal gun battle for almost three days on this holy day of 25th December. Two suspected militant commanders, one senior army officer and one civilian were killed in the fighting, while four army persons sustained injuries in the gunbattle. But now these things hardly matter to people and it is taken as more of a routine in day to day life. It was due to this feeling that the function looked too smooth for any one to talk about the safety. But more of that safety came from the presence of dozens of gun totting policemen and security persons, who were there to ensure peace at any cost.

Kashmir has a very minuscule population of Christians, who have been braving threats unlike their brethren in other minority communities, to stay put in the valley. The non alignment with any fighting party paid off and Christian community is the only sect in the state, which has largely been spared the unwarranted death. Before the eruption of insurgency in 1989, the Christmas used to be whole night affair, thronged by foreign tourists, but then the environment changed to curfew nights. In an aura when even weddings had to be made a whole day affair, there was no exception to Christmas.

Raphel (not her real name) 28, a Kashmiri catholic Christian, who teaches Kindergarten children, remembers that she used to visit the church even at 1 o clock in the night along with her parents prior to 1989, but now as she says "one has to reach the homes by 7 O clock and couple of years ago the deadlines was even 5 O clock". Raphel attributes this two hour relaxation to the effect of peace process between India and Pakistan and the decrease in number of violent incidents during this year. "May be if God wishes we might be able to again pray during the whole night", she adds.

The Holy family catholic church, constructed in early thirties by Mill Hill fathers England is only Catholic church in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir. It is situated in the high security zone just adjacent to Chief Minister's official residence, so round the clock security is a usual thing. But Father K. Mathew 48, who has come all the way from southern most part of India, to serve the church says they don't feel threatened "that is why we don't even have a gatekeeper, everybody is allowed". Being close to high profile residence has its merits and demerits, as Father Mathew recalls how horrific it was to be holed in the church for the entire night, when the CM residence was attacked in the year 2003. "I could see the live encounter from the church and people lying in the pool of blood a few feet away from church" recalls Father. "But" as he says "we are here to spread the message of love and peace and nothing will deter us".

In the lawn were number of Muslims, particularly youths, were seen wandering about the Santa Claus, whose dress was doned by a teen. "I had for the first time seen a church from inside and it was quite a unique experience" says Junaid, a Muslim youth who had arrived in the church along with his friends, just to have a look. A lone foreigner, perhaps a journalist was also present in the Church continuously recording the images for lifetime.

Being a Christian in Kashmir is not an easy affair, one has to keep a fine balance between politics, religion and vocal chords, a little twist can invite the wrath from unexpected quarters opines Shahid Ahmad, a Kashmir observer. Particularly after 2001 census declared that the Christianity is the fastest growing religion in Kashmir, the Muslim clerics replied with utmost anger and alleged the Christian missionaries of converting people by granting monetary benefits. The Christian missionaries and Churches vehemently deny the charge and say they can't throw a person out if he comes into God's fold out of his own will.

In the total population of over 10 million, Christians comprise of a minuscule share of 21000, but the number is enough to make Muslim clerics threatened of their bastions. With the result the newly converts cannot freely express themselves and to talk with them about religion is Herculean task, as was discovered by the reporter. Unlike last year when some of the newly convert women had arrived in the church fully veiled, like the lady's in the mosque, this year the sight of a sizeable local Christian population just remained a wish. Perhaps the killing of Bashir Ahmad Tantray a local Kashmiri convert on November 21, 2006 at Pattan, was enough for a reason to deter their attendance.

Nevertheless this year celebration was pretty good, partly because of the fact that the major part of gathering included non state subjects, who work in various departments including army here. But as Samuel, 51 year old welder from Indian capital, working in Kashmir says "i can sense the atmosphere is changing and there is a sort of openness and independence".

To resonate the Christianity along with local aspirations a sigh of Ameen also resonated the four walls of church, when the Father prayed for peace to return in Kashmir. But the situation doesn't seem to look so nice in the nearby future. If there was a foreign priest blessing the crowd with God's message of love and peace, the locals continued to remain illusive to the gathering. It seems that equal number of good things are being negated by the bad ones. People continue to die daily in the militancy related incidents and the Christmas day was no exception to it. Besides encounter at Pattan, two persons including a local political leader were killed elsewhere in the state.

Going by some typical parameters like the death per day which has come down from five to three and even less, the Christians too are managing to slowly move towards night prayers by an hour per year. Yesterday the night prayers were held for the first time from 6 PM to 8 PM, unlike last years start at 5, and still the church was housefull. But after 8 the roads were again deserted and only gun totting men and howling canines remained on haunting streets.

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