NEW DELHI: The 125-year-old Saint Luke’s church in Indian-administered Kashmir, the oldest in the region, held Christmas mass for the first time in thirty years on Saturday after the building reopened to the public earlier this week.
Around 35,00 Christians in the region of 12 million people have been demanding the restoration of the church since 2016. Renovation work on the building was started in 2019 by the Jammu and Kashmir tourism department. The repair works cost approximately $80,000.
India is home to one of Asia’s oldest and largest Christian communities, with more than 30 million adherents. News of the church’s reopening comes as media has reported widespread persecution of the Christian community, with the New York Times saying anti-Christian vigilantes were sweeping through villages, storming churches, burning Christian literature, attacking schools and assaulting worshipers.
“We, as a whole community, are very happy, it's like a dream come true,” Reverend Eric Tarsem, the head priest at the church told Arab News on Saturday, commenting on the reopening of the building. “We thank the government in Kashmir for renovating and restoring the church.”
The foundation stone of Saint Luke’s Church, located in the Dalgate area of Srinagar, was laid by brothers Earnest Neve and Dr Arthur Neve on September 12, 1896. The brothers were the first to introduce modern medicine in Kashmir and vaccinations for cholera and smallpox in the late 19th century. They also established the Kashmir Mission Hospital in 1888.
The church was shut down in the early 1990s when insurgents launched an armed rebellion against New Delhi’s rule in India’s only Muslim majority region, which has been at the heart of tensions between Hindu-majority India and Muslim Pakistan for decades and the cause of two of the three wars between the nuclear-armed neighbours. Both countries claim the region in full, but each rules only in part.
On Saturday, just three days after the church’s reopening, more than 100 people gathered there to offer Christmas prayers.
“The opening of the church means a lot to us,” Grace Palijor, a fourth-generation Christian in Srinagar, told Arab News. “We are a minority community in Kashmir. The renovation means a lot to us. It is an acknowledgement of the service the Christian missionaries have served and developed this land all these years.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi also sent Christmas greetings to India’s Christians on Twitter.
“Christmas greetings to everyone! We recall the life and noble teachings of Jesus Christ, which placed topmost emphasis on service, kindness and humility. May everyone be healthy and prosperous. May there be harmony all around.”
Christmas greetings to everyone! We recall the life and noble teachings of Jesus Christ, which placed topmost emphasis on service, kindness and humility. May everyone be healthy and prosperous. May there be harmony all around.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) December 25, 2021
Palijor, who runs a school in the city and sang in the choir at Saint Luke’s on Saturday, called the reopening of the church “a good omen" for Kashmir.
"It is a reassertion of Kashmir’s syncretism," she said. "We feel accepted in the community, it’s a very good gesture and it brings hope and peace, especially in the festive season of Christmas.”