The parish of Srinagar includes 35 families, but is visited by Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. Daily life is marked by uncertainty and the absence of peace. The parish helps the poor and the sick. Friendships go beyond religious affiliation.
Srinagar (AsiaNews) – The Holy Family Catholic Church, the only Catholic church in Srinagar and the second in the whole of the Kashmir Valley, tries to be a "beacon of hope and peace" in the midst of violence, this according to the parish priest, Fr Roy Mathew.
Speaking to AsiaNews, the clergyman talked about his congregation, marked by uncertainty and poverty. The Kashmir Valley has been torn by a long and never-ending struggle between India and Pakistan.
Its legacy has been a trail of "open wounds: poverty, unemployment, inadequate schools, impossible education, psychological traumas, people blinded by banned BB guns. Children are those who suffer the most.” Nobody "knows what will become of us tomorrow. As a result of this there is no peace."
Recently, fighting resumed between separatists and the army. "Uncertainty rules everyday life and it is difficult to even just plan for the day," Fr Matthew said.
Lives have been marked by the confrontation. The local administration has often imposed curfews, whilst guerrillas tied to Islamic groups have organised protests, strikes, and blockades.
The "violence has also affected Catholics. Children go to school at most for 100 days a year. Still, the parish outreach is always active and we try to maintain a certain continuity."
In the middle of all this, "the Church does what it can, supporting peace meetings between groups. We organise meetings in 'peace clubs' in schools so as to plant seeds of peace and coexistence in the more receptive minds of young people. We also carry out peace initiatives in schools on the border between India and Pakistan."
Founded in 1896 by the Mill Hill missionaries as a chapel for British Army personnel stationed in India, the parish now includes 35 families with 115 members.
The latter belong to different ethnic groups (Kashmiri, Punjabi, Dalit, Adivasi, Bengali) and the liturgy is celebrated in three languages (Urdu, English and Hindi). "Every year two to three baptisms take place, all within the same community."
Three convents have ties with the church (Sisters of Mother Teresa, the Carmelites and of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary). Catechism lessons are offered. The poorest parishioners are helped in paying school fees and free drugs are provided to the needy, especially Muslims.
Members of other religions visit the parish as well. "Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists come on Sundays and take part in the Mass. Hundreds of young Muslims stop at the church to pray."
Many people "ask to be baptised, because they believe that being part of the Church will make them richer,” Fr Matthew said. “We do not encourage this but maintain a fraternal friendship with them."
According to the clergyman, "The time is not ripe for organising meetings for interfaith dialogue, since radicalisation is growing in many sectors of the population.”
Furthermore, only four Catholic families "own a house of their own, all the others live in rented houses owned by Muslims". The latter do not look favorably "if priests and nuns visit families dressed in a cassock, which" is a giveaway for their "religious beliefs. The owners could be offended and there is a risk that the Catholics will be evicted." So, the religious prefer to visit families in plainclothes.
Conversely, "we encourage good relations with the members of other religions; for example, by participating in each other's festivities. At Christmas, we invite them to come to church and usually they (Muslims and Sikhs) bring gifts and sweets."
A concrete example of interfaith coexistence occurred in October 2017. "After 50 years, the church bell rang again,” Fr Matthew explained. “It had been destroyed in 1967 in a fire set during the Arab-Israeli war. A Muslim imam, a Hindu priest, a Buddhist monk, a Baha'i leader and a Sikh attended the ceremony."