Torn by conflict decades of conflict between India and Pakistan, Kashmir’s Christian community has renewed hope.
Returning from a day of singing Christmas carols at homes and churches in Srinagar, a small group of Christians thronged near the gate of St. Luke’s Church on a cold Monday evening this month as the sunset, feeling excited and curious.
Many among them were not even born at the time when St. Luke’s was shuttered more than three decades ago. Now the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department is leading an effort to renovate the church and restore its former glory, hoping the church will become a landmark for tourists to visit as well as provide local Christians, less than 1% of the population, a house of worship.
The carolers walked inside the Gothic sanctuary for the first time, surrounded by construction materials, and sang hymns and prayed for the construction workers renovating the church.
“God has given us a chance to come here,” said Rev. Eric, the priest in charge at the nearby All Saints Church, who led the first prayers in St. Luke’s for over 30 years. “May God bless those who worked to revive the church,” those gathered chanted.
“We Christians are very few here, but we have schools and also hospitals that serve people and have been serving since 150 years,” said Rev. Eric. “It’s like a dream come true for the Christian community in Kashmir.”
St. Luke’s Church in the Dal Gate area of Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir, is one of the oldest churches in the region built by a Christian missionary society of England. The foundation of the 125-year-old church was laid by brothers who were medical missionaries, Dr. Earnest Neve and Dr. Arthur Neve, on Sep. 12, 1896. The Neves were doctors at the Kashmir Mission Hospital that lies adjacent to the St. Luke’s compound and introduced the practice of allopathic medicine in Kashmir. The Kashmir Mission hospital, now called Chest Diseases Hospital, was started in 1874 and it was among the first medical facilities opened by Christian missionaries in Kashmir Valley.
St. Luke’s was closed years before the early 1990’s outbreak of the armed insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir because most of the Christian hospital staff, mostly Indian Christians, left the region before violence flared up. And since there was no one to take care of the church, eventually it remained abandoned and in shambles.
The church has historically served an important place of worship for the local Protestant Christians of Kashmir Valley. Foreigners tended to attend services at All Saints Church nearby, which lies in a protected security zone and is run by the same Anglican diocese.
The Protestant Christian community has four main churches in the region— in South Kashmir, Srinagar and one in Gulmarg, the famous ski resort in North Kashmir. The Church in Gulmarg is also decorated for Christmas, welcoming Christmas Eve worshippers.
Before India’s independence, during British rule, St. Luke’s Church came under the Diocese of Lahore which lies in today’s Pakistan, and Bishop of Lahore Henry James Matthew came to Kashmir to consecrate three churches, including St. Luke’s. Bishop Matthew arrived in Kashmir on Sept. 10, 1896. Today St. Luke’s Church is part of the Church of North India and the Diocese of Amritsar, part of the global Anglican communion.
Irene Petrie, a British missionary in Kashmir at the turn of the 19th century, had witnessed the inauguration of two out of the three churches in Srinagar. She writes in her dairy that was later published in 1901:
“All the Indian and Kashmiri Christians came, and a large number of the English inhabitants, headed by the Resident, Sir Adelbert Talbot. The choir was led by some of our party, and Dr. Ernest Neve played the organ. Dr. Arthur Neve received the Bishop and six clergy, who came to the west, or rather east door— as the church is occidened [oriented] — and presented the petition for the dedication of St. Lukes, which was read in Urdu”.
The Gothic architecture of the church makes it stand out and look unique from the rest of the buildings and architecture in Kashmir Valley. Syed Shuaib Naqashbandi, an architect with the government- proposed Smart City Project explained that St. Luke’s has specific components, like pointed arches, that are unusual even for churches in the region and many damaged structures, like an intricate wooden roof dilapidated from rain.
“We are not just restoring the church but also want to conserve it as it had looked earlier,” Naqashbandi explained. “The ceiling of the church is being preserved with the same texture it had before, using Kashmiri wood work called khatamband.”
The sunset prayer was followed by singing carols that reverberated inside the church and its premises, an emotional moment for many, including the construction workers who stood watching them sing.
“My parents got married in the same church,” said Parvez Samuel Koul, a director of one of the biggest Christian missionary schools in Kashmir. “We have lived here for years peacefully with other communities,” he added.
Koul believes that his baptism might have happened in St. Luke’s as well. “This church also was used as a reading room for a long period of time,” Koul said.
A young Kashmiri Christian, Noreen Rigzin, has been part of the church choir at All Saints. It was her first visit to St. Luke’s, and she never knew it existed, she said. Rigzin is hopeful that the restoration of the church will let people know that there are churches in Kashmir.
Naseer Ahmad, a Muslim mason working to restore the church, remembers how the church looked when he was a child. He recalled fond memories of his childhood days when he and his friends would peep at the prayer sessions through the church’s door.
With just few days left until Christmas Eve, the workers are laying the final touches to the renovations of the church. A group of glass workers installed stained glass on the huge windows, and the church has regained sun light and color inside its formerly dark sanctuary.
Syed Shahriyar is an independent multimedia journalist based out of Srinagar kashmir.His work has appeared in BBC, Al Jazeera, AJ+ , Eater (Vox Media), Vice News, Getty Images, Le-Monde, RFI, Liberation and more. He was one of the nine journalists whose work was featured in the acclaimed photobook “Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016”, featured as one of the best photo books in the New York Times in 2017.
–Reprinted with permission from ReligionUnplugged.