India: Arrested for Baptisms
September 25, 2012
“I enquired about the possession of the Christian spirit, and the reply came … that it was the Holy Spirit. Well, at any cost I didn’t want to be robbed of this new life and hence started learning Christianity.”
Thus began the journey of Reverend Chander Mani Khanna from high-caste Hindu devotee to dedicated Christian pastor arrested for baptizing former Muslims.
Pastor Khanna converted to Christianity in 1969 at the age of 22. He later became a minister in the Church of North India, an Anglican denomination, and was called to serve at All Saints Church in India’s Kashmir region. While India is Hindu majority, most people in Kashmir are Muslim. India has the world’s third-largest Muslim community, and the Kashmir region is unofficially governed by Islamic courts.
The few hundred Christians in Kashmir are increasingly harassed by Muslims. Churches are often surrounded by Muslims during worship services, and young believers are constantly watched and threatened. Islamists also circulate hate literature with a racial undertone against Christians. The media participates in this bias, portraying Christians as people who use women, alcohol and swine blood (deeply offensive to Muslims) in their religious practices.
As the leader of a mainline church, Khanna was well known in the community. He was involved in community-wide reconciliation events between Muslims and Christians. In 2011, several young Muslim men began attending the church and asked Khanna to baptize them. He emphasized that there would be no financial incentive or other benefit for conversion, but they insisted. Khanna baptized the seven men in a public event that someone recorded and later posted on YouTube. Word began to spread that the pastor was converting Muslims through allurement.
Khanna was summoned to appear before the Grand Mufti, an Islamic religious leader with great influence in the region. Khanna was arrested on Nov. 19, and police searched his home for further evidence of conversion by allurement. The men who were baptized continued to assert that they were not enticed to convert, but local newspaper reports cited anonymous police sources who claimed the men were financially rewarded. “You would hang your head in shame at what was written about [the pastor’s] family,” said a VOM partner.
Khanna spent 40 days in prison. “I had the strange experience of boldness and believed the Lord had given me a job, and I did it with grace,” Khanna said. He was released on bail on Dec. 1 and expelled from Kashmir. The case against Khanna was dropped on Feb. 16 because of a lack of evidence against him.
Though he was not convicted, the ordeal took a toll on Khanna’s church position and his family. His wife became ill and was deeply disillusioned at the lack of support from the church. Denominational leadership subtly communicated that Khanna should not have baptized the converts from Islam.
When he retired on Jan. 16, Khanna was let go without a pension. VOM’s partner in India, who had been assisting Khanna with legal representation because lawyers in Kashmir refused to represent him, offered Khanna a job at their office in Bangalore. These days, Khanna spends his time speaking on behalf of persecuted Christians in churches around India. The new job is a great encouragement to him. He has regained confidence, and his wife’s health is improving. “I am not bothered by what happened to me, but I glorify the Lord,” he said.