Blowback from Florida pastor hits Christians in Kashmir

Fallout from the threat by a Florida pastor to burn copies of the Qur’an on the 9/11 anniversary has reached into the faraway province of Kashmir in India, where Muslim separatists have seized the occasion to launch violent protests directed both against the government and the province’s tiny Christian minority.

A Christian school in the town of Tangmarc in Kashmir has been burned down, fortunately with no one inside and no injuries. At least 19 people reportedly have lost their lives, however, in the broader wave of violence currently gripping Kashmir.

Today the Italian daily La Stampa carried an interview with Bishop Peter Celestine Elampassery of the Diocese of Jammu and Kashmir, which numbers 16,260 faithful.Elampassery spoke about the threats Christians in his corner of the world face, and how the Qur’an-burning crisis has aggravated them. The following is an NCR translation of the interview.

Are the Christians of Kashmir a target because of Pastor Jones?

For sure, the situation now is extremely worrying, and we Christians are more insecure than we were before. It’s an immense tragedy, and we don’t know what its limits may be or when we’ll be able to return to normality, which was problematic in itself. We’re suffering a heavy atmosphere of fear, terror, and uncertainty. It has to be said, in general terms, that it’s absolutely inacceptable for any believer to burn a sacred text, whether it’s the Bible or the Qur’an. Beyond that, there are specific considerations regarding our Christian minority. In some areas of India the protests by Muslims are spreading like an oil spill, including clashes with police and aggressions against the Christians. Here, we’re paying in first person for a profoundly negative provocation that moves in a direction opposed to the dialogue and reconciliation that we pursue every day following the teaching of the Holy Father. The circuit of violence only leads to evil, injustices and incomprehension. It drowns out the more rational voices. The ones who pay the price don’t deserve it.

Is it almost what you would have expected?

In some zones the reaction to the announced burning of the Qur’an was immediate, and it quickly took on a precise direction. The protests quickly provoked the spilling of blood among us, in part because the situation was already extremely difficult from a political point of view in light of local separatist tensions. The people here mostly live together peacefully, but there are forces ready to set off violent demonstrations, taking advantage of particular circumstances or current events. The proposal to commemorate Sept. 11 by burning the Qur’an is the farthest thing one can imagine from the necessary harmony that the Catholic Church is trying to promote. However, to use the clamor of this event to unleash political and separatist violence means using a pretext to achieve nefarious goals.

Is there a “Jones effect”?

The extremists have used the global uproar generated by a totally unacceptable proposal to burn the Qur’an, one which has to be condemned, as a pretext. It was a way to put arms in the hands of the extremists, who couldn’t wait to tear up the climate of harmony which for us as a minority is essential for survival. Certainly the repeated news reports about the burning in the United States, which was eventually annulled, whipped up the violent fringes. The ones who ended up as victims of this violent reaction were innocent. You can’t justify taking innocent lives, even by an offensive proposal.

Is there an effort to instrumentalize the protest in an anti-government and anti-Christian sense?

Hundreds of people gathered in a threatening way in front of Christian buildings. The climate quickly became alarming, above all at night. Voices began to circulate urging people to take to the streets to demonstrate in front of Christian religious sites, so much so that the authorities imposed a curfew seeking to limit the influx of demonstrators. Since June, the protests by Islamic sectors against the government have assumed a very violent character, and in the clashes with the police dozens of demonstrators have been injured. The proposal to burn the Qur’an made the situation even more dangerous for us Christians, as we’re a small minority.

Do you fear a further escalation of violence?

As a bishop I’m worried, and there’s no doubt the absurd proposal to burn the Qur’an has made the situation more alarming and dangerous. However, there’s no way to accept or justify that innocent people are losing their lives because of blind and indiscriminate violence.

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