MUMBAI, India — The Rev. Chander Mani Khanna offers an alternative face of anti-Christian persecution in India. He spent 14 days in police custody in 2011 for the alleged crime of baptizing people into the faith, yet his troubles came not from the country’s Hindu majority, but rather its Muslim minority.
In addition to the insight that it’s not just radical Hindus who put Christians at risk in India, Khanna’s story illustrates two other insights about religious persecution, both with relevance well beyond any one country.
First, it shows there’s nothing like a common enemy to bring two groups together. Second, it illustrates that sometimes the pain of religious persecution can be compounded by a lack of solidarity from one’s own.
Although India’s vast population of 1.25 billion is 80 percent Hindu, that’s not true of the state of Kashmir, located in a border zone that’s contested among India, Pakistan, and China. It’s almost 70 percent Muslim, and under the Indian constitution, it enjoys an autonomous status, which means the rulings of Islamic sharia courts enjoy the force of law.
In 2011, Khanna was serving as pastor of Christ the King Church, a small parish serving 30 to 40 people that’s part of the Anglican-affiliated Church of North India, and located in Srinagar, the state’s summer capital.
In an interview Wednesday in Mumbai, Khanna said local Muslims began coming to the parish asking to be baptized — a request that he initially refused because he suspected they saw it as a route to material benefits.
When they persisted, he started holding classes at the church on Fridays for potential converts, and eventually he baptized 21 people into the faith. Although Indian law requires converts to file an affidavit stating they made the choice voluntarily, Khanna knowingly defied it.
“You have to understand, all the guys at the courthouse are Muslims, the police and the judges are Muslims,” he said. “If these people had gone down to register, they would have been beat up.”
His difficulties began when someone took a video recording of one of his baptism ceremonies, in which he said that by bringing new people into the church, they had “put a dent in the Kingdom of Satan.”
Khanna said he meant only that the Devil wouldn’t be happy seeing additional people professing allegiance to God, but the line was taken as a great insult by many Muslims. The video was posted on YouTube, triggering what Khanna describes as an avalanche of death threats from Muslim critics, many of them posted publicly on Facebook.
It also brought an indictment from Kashmir’s sharia court, which accused Khanna of paying converts 40,000 Indian rupees (roughly $625). One of the young men he’d baptized was hauled before the court to make the accusation, his face still bearing the marks of a beating Khanna said he’d received to coerce his testimony.
Other charges included allegations that his daughter, who didn’t actually live in Srinagar at the time, was seducing young men into joining his church, and that his wife was encouraging converts to drink pig’s blood, violating the Islamic taboo against contact with pigs.
For the record, Khanna denies those charges.
Khanna said he was tricked into signing a confession and held in a local police station for two weeks awaiting transfer to a central jail in Srinagar, where he’s convinced he would have been killed. He was released only when a Hindu judge from another part of the country agreed to grant him bail.
Today he lives in Jammu, the winter capital of Kashmir, where Muslims are only about 30 percent of the population. In theory, his conviction could be revived at any time, and four years after the fact he’s not been able to return to Srinagar to retrieve his possessions – which, in the meantime, underwent significant damage from a flood that left his home under 15 feet of water.
One perverse benefit of such difficulties, Khanna said, is that it’s brought the religious minorities of Kashmir together.
All the state’s non-Muslim religious groups – Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists – find themselves in the same boat, he said, vis-à-vis an Islamic majority that’s often influenced by extremist currents in nearby Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Across much of India, the primary form of religious persecution experienced by Christians come from the Hindu majority. A nationalist party that took power in 2014 is currently promoting efforts to boost the country’s Hindu identity, a trend critics have dubbed “saffronization” in reference to the color of the robes worn by Hindu sages.
Kashmir, however, bucks the trend.
“Our relations with Hindus are excellent,” Khanna said, “because here our problems are the same.”
That spirit of common cause, however, doesn’t always hold up inside the individual faiths.
In Khanna’s case, he said the pre-existing population of his own parish didn’t care for his missionary outreach, largely because they saw their control of the church slipping away. They were also worried that his activity could spark retribution from irritated Muslims.
It wasn’t exactly an idle fear, Khanna said, since the church had previously been attacked three times. When former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was executed in 1979, for instance, his hangman was a Christian, which prompted local Muslims in Kashmir to set fire to the parish.
Khanna’s bishop likewise took a dim view of the controversies he’d created, because the Church of North India operates several schools in Kashmir, and he was worried they might become targets.
“He was more concerned about property damage than saving the skin of one of his own pastors,” Khanna said.
When he was released from police custody, he returned home to find a letter informing him that his services at Christ the King were no longer required. Today, he survives as a freelance consultant for various church groups, generally running training programs to support reconciliation efforts.
Despite his experience, Khanna is optimistic about Christianity’s prospects in Kashmir.
“Ordinary Muslims are tired of these fundamentalists,” he said. “There is a great moment of opportunity for Christianity coming.”
Nevertheless, he added this grim coda: “Things will probably get worse, maybe even much worse, before they get better.”