Kashmir’s Christians are celebrating the fact that their region was spared from a wave of anti-Christian violence that marred the Christmas season elsewhere in India, with many attributing the seasonal goodwill to appreciation for the work of Christian missionaries and a local tradition of communal harmony.
Prompted by rising Hindu nationalism in much of India, the nation’s Christian community suffered 305 violent incidents in the first nine months of 2021, according to a report compiled by three interest groups: the United Christian Forum, the Association for Protection of Civil Rights, and United Against Hate.
Such attacks continued through December, with several incidents in which festive celebrations were disrupted, Jesus statues were damaged and Santa Claus effigies were burned.
In the Kashmir Valley, however, it was a different story with Muslims and Sikhs joining the valley’s small Christian community in celebrating Christmas with brightly decorated churches and shared religious ceremonies.
“Kashmiri Muslims, who inherit rich traditions and customs of hospitality, brotherhood and respect, do set an example to the rest of the world with these values,” said Father Suresh Britto, the priest at the Holy Family Church in the Srinagar district, who described how Kashmiri Muslims participate in Christmas festivities just as Christians join in the Muslim celebration of Eid.
Tanya Rigzin, a Kashmiri Christian whose family has lived in Kashmir for five generations, described the spirit of shared festivities across the valley. “While the world celebrates with cakes, we in Kashmir prepare local dishes on this occasion.”
Another Christian, Shammi Sohail, told VOA that Christmas is an annual sacred event for his community and that his fellow Christians had been busy shopping ahead of December 25. “We prepared for Christmas with all the zeal this year as well,” he said.
Not immune to clashes
Kashmir’s tradition of sectarian harmony has not made it immune to political violence. A total of 274 people — most of them Muslim militants seeking an end to Indian rule in Kashmir — died in political violence in the past year alone, but the militants themselves insist they were not targeting people based on their religion, but only those working for Indian authorities.
Despite the violence, Hamidullah Marazi, head of the Department of Religious Studies at the Central University of Kashmir, told VOA that Kashmir has long been a place where differing religious and ethnic groups have existed side by side.
“There exists harmony among people of all hues,” he said in an interview. “Even now, Kashmir presents glorious examples of communal and religious harmony amidst the worst provocations, when any opportunity emerged to show this attitude.”
He noted that members of the region’s Muslim majority have been known to arrange for the cremation of Kashmiri Hindus — known as pandits — who die in the valley and have no relatives or co-religionists to perform last rites.
“With Christians, the Kashmiri Muslim populace has maintained the same behavior, and they have religiously protected the interests of the religious minorities, especially of Christians,” he said.
Britto said the people of Kashmir have historically prized a spirit of cultural pluralism and religious tolerance known as Kashmiriyat.
“The Kashmiriyat holds in its bosom everyone without discrimination,” he said. “The rich pluralistic diversity is part of the Kashmir society. Hence intolerance has no place in the Kashmiri society.”
Elsewhere in India, recent weeks have seen several attacks on Christians, including incidents in which a church in New Delhi and a Catholic school in central India’s Madhya Pradesh state were damaged by vandals.
In Kashmir, by contrast, the state’s the tourism department has refurbished and restored St. Luke’s Church, a beloved edifice for Protestant Christians, after it had been closed for 30 years because of militancy.
The local administration pushed hard to complete the work before December 25. The tourism department’s contractor, Mohammad Saleem, told VOA that his crew began the renovation in 2020 but had to stop the work during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Despite the bone-chilling cold, we worked hard to finish the work at the earliest so that Christians celebrate Christmas in this church,” he said.
The cornerstone of the church was laid in 1896 by Ernest and Arthur Neve, English missionaries who introduced cholera and smallpox vaccinations to the Himalayan region in the late 1800s.The two doctors provided medical services at Kashmir Mission Hospital, which they founded in 1888, now known as the Government Chest Disease Hospital.
“The history of modern health care in the pre-independence era in Kashmir is synonymous with Christian missionary activities,” says a posting on the website of the Directorate of Health Services detailing the history of health care in Kashmir.
The Christian community has also played a major role in education in Kashmir, according to the Reverend Eric Priest of All Saints Church, who has been in Kashmir for over three years and says he has found the people warm and welcoming.
Many local Muslims have studied at the Tyndale Biscoe School, which was founded by Christian missionaries in 1880 and was named after Canon Cecil Tyndale-Biscoe.
Christmas is also a boon for local businesses in Kashmir. Syed Amjad Ali, the owner of a local handicraft manufacturer, said his firm began receiving orders for handmade products for Christians from May, some from as far away as Europe.
Ali estimated the value of handicraft exports for Christmas at more than $2.63 million, which is around 8% of total handicraft exports.