April 3, 2013
"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 who was arrested for baptizing Muslim converts.
Pastor Khanna converted to Christianity at 22 years old in 1969. He later became a minister in the Church of North India, an Anglican denomination, and was assigned to serve at the All Saints Church in India's Kashmir region. While most of India is Hindu majority, because of its proximity to Pakistan, most people in Kashmir are Muslim and Muslims in India make up the world's third largest Muslim community. The region is governed unofficially by Islamic courts.
Lately Islamists have been stirring up trouble for the few hundred Christians in Kashmir. Churches are surrounded by Muslim trouble-makers during worship services. Young believers are constantly watched and threatened. Islamists also circulate hate literature with a racial undertone against Christians. The media also participates in this bias, portraying an image of 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, Rev. Khanna was well-known in the community. He was involved in community-wide reconciliation events between Muslims and Christians. In 2011, several Muslim young men began attending the church and asked Khanna to baptize them. He warned them 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 filmed and eventually 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 no formal legal authority but with great influence in the region. Khanna was arrested Nov. 19 and police searched his home for further evidence of conversion by allurement. The youths who were baptized continued to assert that they were not given anything to convert, but local newspapers ran reports citing anonymous police sources that said they were financially rewarded. "You would hang your head in shame at what was written about his 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," said Khanna. He was released on bail on Dec. 1 and expelled from Kashmir. His case was eventually halted Feb. 16 when investigators could not supply enough evidence.
Though he was not eventually convicted, the ordeal took a toll on Khanna's church position and his family. His wife, deeply disillusioned at the lack of support from the church, got sick. Denominational leadership subtly communicated that they felt Khanna should not have baptized the converts from Islam.
When he retired Jan. 16, he was let go without a pension. VOM's partner in India, who had been assisting Khanna with legal representation after 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 and he has new confidence. His wife's health is improving. He said, "I am not bothered by what happened to me, but I glorify the Lord."