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Conversions threaten ancient Kalash tribe

By Muhkamuddin

CHITRAL: Pakistan’s smallest religious minority is getting even smaller. At least 12 members of the Kalash tribe have converted to Islam in the past one month alone, sparking renewed fears among Chitral’s disappearing animist tribe.

Historians believe the Kalasha ruled Chitral centuries ago. But they are now a minority in the region with their population reduced to just a third of the 12,000 residents, according to the Kalash People’s Development Network (KPDN), a local organisation.

These people are now isolated to just three Chitral valleys: Bumburet, Rumbur, and Birir.

And with another 12 people leaving the ancient, polytheistic faith last month, community elders fear the whole tribe will eventually convert in the near future if the trend continues.

Most of the latest converts have been female students at schools and colleges. For KPDN head Luke Rehmat, it is puzzling how the Kalasha women are so excited over changing religions with such honour.

He told The Express Tribune that Kalasha Qazi of Birir Valley was the first one to accept Islam last month. “After him, many people followed him and even more will follow suit,” he said.

Among the 12 converts, four Kalasha girls from Bumburet and Rumbur married Muslim men and changed their religion after the Chawmos festival. The festival is the most important Kalasha event of the year celebrated for two weeks at winter solstice. It marks the end of the year’s fieldwork and harvest, and involves music, dancing and sacrifice of goats, dedicated to the ancestors.

But the KPDN head believes the major factor bringing Kalasha closer to conversion was the courses taught at schools. “Islamic subjects are taught to schoolchildren and grab the interest of a large number of women,” he said.

He said the converts then advised their friends to follow them and this process went on. The concept of wearing a chaddar is also gaining popularity among the Kalasha women, he added. But Wazirzada from Rumbur shared different reasons for the increasing conversions.

“Kalash is a free religion and there is no restriction on becoming a Muslim,” he said. “Most of the girls do not find soul-mates within the Kalash community and prefer Muslim boys for this reason.” He added the Kalashas were free to join any religion but they preferred Islam because Muslims were already living in the vicinity. “They see them, they like them, and then they follow their culture, their traditions.”

Qari Islam, a cleric in Chitral, believes turning towards Islam was something divine. “The Kalasha girls are aware of Islamic teachings and they know the difference between right and wrong,” he claimed.

Up to 100 Kalashas have converted to Islam in the past few years, according to KPDN’s Rehmat, sometimes causing strange family dynamics.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 20th, 2016.

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