The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Saturday, April 05, 2003

It’s conversion time in Valley

Slowly and discreetly, Christian evangelists make inroads into Muslim heartland of Kashmir

by TARIQ MIR

SRINAGAR, APRIL 5: Amid booming guns and endless violence, Kashmir is witnessing a discreet spurt in conversion — from Islam to Christianity. Christian groups are putting the number of neo-converts at over 10,000 and a Sunday Express investigation confirms that conversions have been taking place regularly across the Valley.

At least a dozen Christian missions and churches based in the US, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland have sent evengelists to the Valley and are pumping in money through intermediaries based in New Delhi.

In the Valley where death and trauma are a way of life, the missionaries are getting immediate attention because they reach out to the poor, needy and those affected by violence. Also, they bring in a lot of money.

Though conversions have not encountered any resistance from Muslim organisations, it has led to tensions between Kashmir’s native Christians — a miniscule community of 650 — and the enthusiastic evangelists.

The native Christians are increasingly getting vocal against the outsiders. ‘‘This type of conversions aren’t good for local Christians who had shared a cordial relationship with Muslims here for centuries. The conversions they are doing are Bibilically wrong. There are umpteen cases in which one person has been baptised thrice within a few months. These so-called evangelists have set up businesses in the garb of Church and social work,’’ says Pastor Leslie Richards, a native protestant living in Braen, Srinagar. ‘‘The converts here do it for monetary reasons and the people who convert them too do it for the same reasons,’’ he adds.

Christianity Today, a magazine, puts the number of Kashmiri Muslims who recently converted to Christianity at thousands. An article, Harassed Kashmiri Christians Reach out to Discreet Muslims, posted on their website Christianitytoday.com reasons: ‘‘Wearied by violence, thousands are interested in the Prince of Peace. They have faith in Jesus but don’t come out. Their number goes into thousands in the rural areas.’’ The estimates pieced together by the evangelists here say the number of converts to Christianity touch 12,000 in the Valley.

The founder of Agape Mission, Pastor Neethi Rajan, a Hindu convert from Chennai, says, ‘‘God spoke to me clearly and asked me to go to Kashmir.’’ Determined to spread the Gospel among Kashmiris, Rajan says as long as people are not exploited, spreading the message of Christ isn’t wrong. ‘‘Thousands of people have accepted Jesus as their saviour and many more are showing interest across Kashmir. There’s nothing wrong in preaching the Gospel,’’ says Rajan.

Asked about the source of funds, Rajan says friends help him out. Insiders, however, say he is linked to Assemblies of God, a US-based mission.

Though many organisations say they are interested in social work and not conversions, an investigation across the Valley confirmed conversions. Among the churches and missions that have set up bases are US-based German Town Baptist Church, US-based Frontiers, a mission with an avowed aim to reproduce churches among unreached Muslim people (www.frontiers.org) and Assemblies of God. They have funded around a dozen churches and missions in Kashmir.

Two German-based missions, Call of Hope and Overseas Social Service, have a base with over 60 evangelists. Another mission, The Campus Crusade for Christ, with bases in the West has a strong network of evangelists among the students in the Valley.

The Switzerland-based mission, The Good Way, has a base in rural Kashmir. Two Indian missions, National Missionary Intelligencer and Cooperative Outreach of India, too fund evangelists here. The focus of evangelical work is mostly in rural Kashmir and areas bordering Srinagar.

Cooperative Outreach of India (COI), a Delhi-based NGO that works among the lepers and downtrodden in Srinagar, makes no bones about the source of funding. Insiders say COI receives funds from the German Town Baptist Church, one of the wealthiest Protestant churches in Tennesse, US, Frontiers, another US mission and Call of Hope, a mission based in Germany.

The director of the COI, Remesh Landge — who was recently in the Valley to give away sewing machine to lepers — admits that they receive money from Churches overseas. ‘‘We do get some foreign funding from churches and missions overseas. But we don’t use them to convert people. We work to try and help the poor and needy here.’’

He blames the Roman Catholic church for discrediting the image of Christians who work among the poor. ‘‘Our churches and missions don’t have that much of money. Roman Catholics have huge money. It’s they who created controversy in other parts of the country by converting tribals which ended in the sad killing of Graham Staines.’’ adds Landge.

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