For a decade now, Christian missionary groups have been flocking to the conflicted province of Kashmir, bringing medicine, school books, and self-help programs.
"Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir are fighting too much ... Christians help us to get jobs and they teach us love," says Zubaida Hameed, a student at Srinagar University. "This is good for our people."
But some observers worry that the influx of Christian evangelists may be exacerbating a volatile situation in India's northernmost state, where up to 50,000 people have died in sectarian violence. Sandwiched between India and Pakistan, this territory is the cause of two wars between the two neighbors. Armed militants are alleged to sneak across the border from Pakistan to foment trouble in the valley. Just last month 24 Hindus were killed in Kashmir, allegedly by Muslim militants.
"The time is not ripe for promoting and spreading a third religion in the valley - it will have bad consequences," says Prashant Dikshit, the deputy director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies.
Local Christians like Pastor Leslie Richards are also increasingly agitated by the presence of the new evangelists, who they believe are more interested in conversions than social work. Mr. Richards says local Muslims receive cash if they agree to convert. "The conversions they are doing are Biblically wrong ... this is not good for the local Christians, who for centuries have shared cordial relations with the local Muslims here," Richards told the Indian Express newspaper.
But Neethi Rajan, an evangelist with the Assemblies of God, rejects the criticism: "There is nothing wrong with spreading the word of Christ, and I assure you we are not bribing or exploiting anyone to come to our church."
The Rev. Chander Mani Khanna, pastor of the Anglican All Saints Church in Srinagar, is skeptical of the large numbers of newly converted Christians being tossed about - and of claims that many conversions are for cash. "Of course, I believe that there are some black sheep in the fold - some evangelists who use money as a lure - but I can tell you that I have been here in Srinagar since July 2002, and I have only converted one person - so even if there are a few others in new churches, it is hardly a case of mass conversion."
"Most of these young Muslims would be too scared to convert - too scared to tell their families," Khanna adds. ""The young people come to hear sermons mainly to escape from the cycle of violence in their lives - it just gives them an outlet and also gives them someone to talk to."
Unofficial reports say that more than 10,000 people have converted to Christianity in Kashmir since 1990. "There are more Christians in Kashmir than on the record," says Premi Gergan, a prominent Christian in Kashmir, told Christianitytoday.com last year. "The number goes into the thousands in the rural areas. We don't want to advertise. It has serious repercussions." In the past, right-wing Hindu groups from upper castes have reacted aggressively against missionaries who attract lower-caste Hindus and other groups trying to escape their unhappy place in Indian society. In 1999 an Australian missionary and his two sons were killed by Hindu extremists in the northeastern state of Orissa because he was reported to have converted hundreds of poor, tribal people in the area.
Officials estimate that only 2.18 percent of the Indian population is Christian, and the figure is falling.
Most of the Christian missionary groups are funded by parent groups in the West, including the United States, Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands. Most focus their efforts on the rural poor and areas bordering Srinagar, a city of about 750,000 people.
Ramesh Landge, founder of the Cooperative Outreach of India, a Christian nongovernmental organization based in New Delhi which gets some of its funding from the Germantown Baptist Church in Tennessee, recently brought 15 sewing machines to women in Kashmir. "We try to make people self-reliant," says Mr. Landge. "These young women - many of them the children of parents with leprosy, now sew clothes for schoolchildren." Landge says that social work combined with the teachings of Christ has done a lot to improve life for the Kashmiri people.
"It is ridiculous for anyone to be threatened by a few Christians in Kashmir," says Rev. Dominic Emmanuel, public affairs spokesman for the Catholic Bishops Conference of India. "Missionaries will continue to go where they are needed - where there are earthquakes or famines or conflict. And Kashmir is just one of those places."