BUMBORET VALLEY, Pakistan (Reuters) - Nestled among the valleys of Pakistan’s mountainous northwest, a tiny religious community that claims descent from Alexander the Great’s army is under increasing pressure from radicals bent on converting them to Islam.
The Kalash , who number just about 3,500 in Pakistan’s population of 180 million, are spread over three valleys along the border with Afghanistan. For centuries they practiced polytheism and animal sacrifice without interference from members of Pakistan’s Muslim majority.
But now they are under increasing danger from proselytising Muslim militants just across the border, and a hardline interpretation of Islam creeping through mainstream society -- as Pook Shireen discovered.
After falling unconscious during a car accident , the mid-20s member of the paramilitary Chitral Scouts woke to find that people with him had converted him to Islam.
“Some of the Muslim people here try to influence the Kalash or encourage them by reading certain verses to them from the Koran,” said his mother, Shingerai Bibi.
“The men that were with him read verses of the Koran and then when he woke up they said to him, ‘You are a convert now to Islam’. So he converted.”
The conversion was a shock for his family. But they were lucky compared with other religious minorities under threat from growing religious conservatism that is destabilizing Pakistan, a nuclear-armed U.S. ally.
In May 2010, more than 80 Ahmadis, a minority who consider themselves Muslims but are regarded by Pakistan as non-Muslim, were killed in attacks on two mosques in Lahore.
Then in March this year, the Christian minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, whose job it was to protect groups like the Kalash, was assassinated outside his home in the capital, Islamabad, in an attack claimed by the Pakistani Taliban.
The lush green Kalash valleys, which sit below snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush, have been a magnet for tourists, both for the scenery and for the people, who are indigenous to the area.
Most are fair and with light eyes, which they say proves their descent from the army of Alexander of Macedonia that passed through the area in the 4th century BC to invade India. The community brews its own wine and women are not veiled.
But the smooth co-existence between the Kalash and Muslims has been fading in recent months and the area is suffering from many of the religious tensions marring the rest of Pakistan.
The conversions are causing splits among the Kalash -- converts become outcasts overnight, described by many as “dead to their families”.
“When a Kalash converts we don’t live with them in our houses anymore,” said farmer Asil Khan, sitting on a neighbor’s balcony.
“Our festivals and our culture are different. They can’t take part in the festivals or the way we live.”
Some in the area are so concerned that they believe segregation is the only way to protect the Kalash.
“We should move the Muslims out of the valley to make more room for the Kalash,” said Shohor Gul, a Kalash member of the border police who lives in Rumbur valley. “This area should be just for us. We dislike these conversions - it disturbs our culture and our festivals, and it reduces our numbers.”
The subject of Kalash festivals is raised often in these narrow valleys, where carefully cultivated corn crops cover what flat land exists, and the Kalash community’s distinctive wooden houses terrace the valley walls.
Held to usher in seasonal change or to pray for a good harvest, Kalash festivals include hypnotic dancing and animal sacrifice, fueled by the grape wine with which the Kalash lace their gatherings.
Converts to Islam say, though, that these rituals quicken the decision to leave the Kalash.
“The main thing wrong in the Kalash culture are these festivals,” said 29-year-old convert Rehmat Zar. “When someone dies the body is kept in that house for three days.”
Muslims usually bury people the day they die.
Zar added of the Kalash: “They slaughter up to a hundred goats and the family are mourning - but those around them are celebrating, beating drums, drinking wine and dancing. Why are they celebrating this? That’s wrong.”
Not all of the area’s Muslims feel this way.
Qari Barhatullah is the imam, or priest, at the Jami Masjid in Bumboret valley’s Shikanandeh village.
He stresses that many of the valley’s Muslims value the Kalash’s contributions to the area’s tourism industry and contends that Kalash festivals run parallel to their own.
He admits though that there is tension between the two communities. Unveiled Kalash girls in colorful homemade skirts and head-dresses grow up alongside Muslim women covered by the all-enveloping burqas.
The Kalash girls are also free to marry who they chose, in a country where arranged marriages are common.
“We do support the Kalash - Islam teaches us respect for other religions - but there are people here, maybe they are not as educated - who don’t like the Kalash because of their religion,” Barhatullah said.
Akram Hussain oversees the Kalasha Dur, a cultural center devoted to promoting and protecting the Kalash culture, a stunning structure of elegantly crafted carved wooden beams and stone where Kalash children are educated. It also houses a library, clinic and museum, which are open to both the Kalash and Muslim communities.
“Some of the Muslims here don’t want to educate the Kalash people. They don’t want us to have an education,” he said.
Without more schools that cater exclusively to the Kalash, though, Hussain worries his community and culture will be disappear.
“There are few Kalash teachers and there aren’t schools for older children, so they go to the secondary schools and learn about Islam. The Muslim teachers are brainwashing them. They tell the children that Islam is the only right way and that we are going to hell,” he said.
A provincial spokesman said the regional government is funding development projects for the Kalash and that Pakistan was committed to protecting their unique heritage.
“We have set aside 15 million rupees ($173,210) over three years for projects such as improving roads, water supply systems and community centers,” said Ahmad Hassan. “Whatever the Kalash say they need.”
Others in the Kalash valleys though say development should cease and insist the adoption of Islam should continue, despite the impact on the Kalash culture.
Rehmat Zar, the Kalash convert, says his eventual aim is to convert his entire community to Islam.
“I‘m trying my best to convert many of the Kalash myself. I‘m trying to convert as many as I can,” he said.
“The people who are trying to preserve the Kalash culture are doing wrong. They are committing a mistake. The Kalash should convert to Islam because this is the real, and last, religion”. ($1 = 86.600 Pakistani rupees)
Editing by Chris Allbritton and Michael Georgy