NEW DELHI: The 125-year-old St. Luke’s Church in Indian-administered Kashmir, the oldest in the region, held Christmas Mass for the first time in 30 years on Saturday after the building reopened to the public earlier this week.
Christians in the region had been demanding the restoration of the church since 2016. Renovation work was started in 2019 by the Jammu and Kashmir tourism department, and 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 amid media reports of widespread persecution of the Christian community.
The New York Times has reported anti-Christian vigilantes sweeping through villages, storming churches, burning Christian literature, attacking schools and assaulting worshippers.
“We thank the government in Kashmir for renovating and restoring the church,” Rev. Eric Tarsem, the head priest, told Arab News on Saturday. “We, as a whole community, are very happy. It’s like a dream come true.”
The foundation stone of St. Luke’s Church, located in the Dalgate area of the city of Srinagar, was laid by brothers Earnest and Arthur Neve on Sept. 12, 1896.
They 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.
Kashmir 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 neighbors. 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. “It’s an acknowledgement that Christian missionaries have served and developed this land all these years.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent Christmas greetings to the country’s Christians, tweeting: “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.”
Palijor, who runs a school in Srinagar and sang in the choir at St. Luke’s on Saturday, called the reopening of the church “a good omen” for Kashmir.
“We feel accepted in the community,” she said. “It’s a very good gesture and it brings hope and peace, especially in the festive season of Christmas.”