NEW DELHI, June 2 (Compass) -- The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in a report issued in May asked that India be removed from the list of "Countries of Particular Concern" (or CPCs), citing progress in religious freedom.
India was designated a CPC in 2004, due to a series of violent actions against Muslims and Christians that took place under the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, elected in 1998.
The USCIRF felt the BJP government had not adequately addressed the killing of up to 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat state riots in 2002, nor had it addressed a growing number of violent attacks on the Christian minority in many states.
Created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the USCIRF monitors freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief in countries outside the United States, and gives independent policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress.
While the USCIRF cannot implement sanctions, it can recommend the designation of a country as a CPC on the basis of systematic, ongoing and serious violations of religious freedom. The designation is then made by the U.S. State Department and followed by U.S. diplomatic and economic actions.
This year, the USCIRF said it would no longer recommend that India be designated as a CPC due to "significant developments affecting freedom of belief" over the past year.
One of the developments cited by the USCIRF was the defeat of the BJP party in last year's parliamentary elections. The USCIRF pointed out that the BJP was closely associated with a group of Hindu extremist organizations that operated freely under BJP rule.
However, Christian leaders have voiced concern and surprise at the removal of India from the list of CPCs. They say a climate of strong religious hostility is still evident despite the election of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the Indian National Congress Party, in May 2004.
Speaking to Compass, Dr. John Dayal, a prominent Christian and a member of the National Integration Council of the Government of India, emphasized that the root cause of continuing religious violence was the fundamentalist ideology spread by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu extremist organization that had close ties with the BJP.
"The RSS is ... spreading hate among the tribals and buying its way into the bureaucracy and judiciary," Dayal said.
"The international community must fully and publicly investigate the RSS and all its sub-organizations, their funding, ideology and spread among the Indian diaspora in Asia-Pacific, Europe, the U.K., Canada, the U.S. and the Caribbean," he added.
Dayal also pointed to numerous incidents of anti-Christian violence during the past 12 months.
The BJP and its political allies still control state governments in Rajasthan, Orissa, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Incidents of violence against Christians have reportedly increased in these states over the past year. Sporadic violence has also occurred in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Kerala, states ruled by the Congress Party.
For example, Hindu extremists violently attacked Bible students of the Emmanuel Mission in Kota district, Rajasthan, on February 19. State support of the attackers was clearly visible. (See Compass Direct, "Indian Hindus Attack Christian Students in Rajasthan," February 22, 2005.)
Extremists also assaulted several other Christians in the state, apparently with an agenda to push forward the enactment of anti-conversion laws in Rajasthan. (See Compass Direct, "Hindu Extremists in India Assault Rajasthan Christians," March 18, 2005.)
Numerous other incidents over the past year prompted a delegation of Christian leaders to present an unofficial white paper to the government in March 2005. The paper listed over 200 incidents in the first quarter of this year in which Christians had faced severe harassment or physical attacks.
In the 2005 "Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom," the USCIRF stated that the new Congress-led government had "pledged to reject any kind of religious intolerance and return the country to its pluralistic traditions; proposed a law to halt and criminalize inter-religious violence; and taken immediate steps to remove the religiously intolerant portions of school textbooks issued by the BJP government."
However, the five states most susceptible to religious violence are still ruled by the BJP and its allies. Under terms of the Indian Constitution, the central government can do little to ensure the protection of religious minorities in those states.
Following their election to power, the UPA promised to enact a federal law against religious violence. However, a year after the election, no such law exists.
The USCIRF also said the Supreme Court had taken "significant steps designed to bring to justice those responsible for the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002."
The Supreme Court has indeed reopened hundreds of cases connected with the Gujarat riots, which had been withdrawn by the Gujarat state administration.
However, the Gujarat state government, led by Narendra Modi -- a renowned Hindu fundamentalist -- has caused numerous delays in the judicial process, both for the Gujarat riot trials and the Best Bakery case in which 14 Muslims were killed in Mumbai, Maharashtra.
"The current central government has taken several healthy steps to reassure minorities," Dayal admits. “But as long as the killers of the Gujarat massacres remain free, and as long as Modi rules in Gujarat ... India cannot claim to have cleansed itself of the blood of innocent minority communities."
A Litany of Violence
Attacks or acts of discrimination against Christians*, reported by Compass Direct during the first half of 2005. (*Listed by dates of occurrence when possible.)
* January 19
Arsonists attacked and destroyed a Catholic school in the northeast state of Assam, accusing school staff of attempting to convert Hindu children. "The [Assam Tribune] newspaper exaggerated the incident by alleging that a mob of about 10,000 people attacked the school, whereas the mob was only 70 people strong," Vinay Masih of the Evangelical Fellowship of India told Compass. ("Arsonists Attack Christian School in Guwahati," January 26, 2005)
* February 11
Pastor Narayan, a 25-year-old Christian evangelist, was brutally murdered in Karnataka state. Christians claimed religious fundamentalists were behind the attack. ("Indian Evangelist’s Battered Body Found in Karnataka," February 22, 2005)
* February 14
Hindu cleric Sunil Ji Maharaj threatened 40 Catholic families in the village of Rajura, Maharashtra, insisting that the tribal Christians turn their church into a Hindu temple or face serious consequences. He also threatened the Christians with social ostracism or death if they did not "reconvert" to Hinduism. ("Hindu Cleric Bullies Catholic Villagers in Maharashtra," February 14, 2005.)
* February 19
Members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bajrang Dal beat and robbed 280 Christian students as they were traveling to a graduation ceremony for the Emmanuel Mission in Kota, Rajasthan. Afterward, local police rounded up the students, kept them in custody until the following evening and forced them to return home. None of the attackers were arrested. ("Hindus Attack Christian Students in Rajasthan," February 22, 2005).
* February 23
Members of a radical Hindu group broke up a Christian prayer meeting in a small Indian village in Seoni district, Madhya Pradesh, and left several Christians badly injured. Policemen assigned to guard the believers failed to protect them. Local Hindus have since pressured the Christians to drop their complaint, threatening them with "death and burning down of their houses." ("Hindus Attack Church While Police Take ‘Lunch Break,'" March 14, 2005.)
* March 11
A delegation of India’s top Christian leaders presented an unofficial “white paper” to Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, listing over 200 violent incidents against Christians occurring in the first 10 weeks of 2005. ("Hindus Attack Church While Police Take ‘Lunch Break,'" March 14, 2005)
* March 14
Kiran Kumar, an evangelist arrested on charges of attempting to convert Hindus in Orissa state, appealed his case to the Orissa High Court, accusing the police of negligence and torture. A group of Hindu extremists assaulted Kumar on February 27, tied him up and threatened to throw him into Chilika Lake. Police later arrived on the scene and arrested Kumar and beat him with bamboo rods. ("Evangelist’s Arrest Exposes Police Brutality," March 15, 2005.)
* March 18
Sources reported several attacks on Christians in Rajasthan. Members of the Bajrang Dal, a youth wing of the BJP, attacked eight members of the Friends Missionary Prayer Band on March 13 and falsely accused Pastor Arthur Joel, a Christian orphanage director, of child abuse in early March. Meanwhile in late February, Pastor Vaalu and his eight-month-pregnant wife were brutally assaulted on a public bus in Rajasthan. ("Hindu Extremists Assault Rajasthan Christians," March 18, 2005.)
* March 28
The government of Chhattisgarh announced plans to strengthen existing anti-conversion laws, following reports that the numbers of Christian converts in the state is increasing. Under existing provisions, those who convert without official approval may be imprisoned for up to two years and fined up to 10,000 rupees ($220). However, pending regulations call for imprisonment for up to four years and fines of 100,000 rupees ($2,175). ("Chhattisgarh State to Strengthen Anti-Conversion Law," March 28, 2005)
* March 30
Christian businessman Vidya Sagaran of Kerala state was arrested and charged with attempted forced conversion under the Indian Penal Code. Defense attorney Ranjit George said the charges were the result of a personal dispute between Sagaran and his neighbor. Meanwhile, Hindu activists in Kerala objected to the work of Christian relief groups in tsunami-torn coastal areas, accusing two Catholic priests of inducing tsunami victims to convert to Christianity by offering aid. ("Christian Businessman Charged With Conversion," April 14, 2005.)
* April 1
Hindu and Muslim villagers burned down a prayer hall and attacked three church members in Panamvilla village, Kerala. The attack came after 26 people were baptized in a discreet early morning ceremony. Two days later when Paul Ciniraj Mohammed, pastor of the church, spoke to some of the villagers about the assault, he and his assistant were also beaten severely. ("Villagers Beat Christians, Burn Down Prayer Hall," April 15, 2005.)
* April 2
The Hindu Jagran Manch held a "reconversion" ceremony in Dhamtari district, Chhattisgarh, in which they claimed 700 Christians had reconverted to Hinduism. During the reconversion ceremony, former cabinet minister Dilip Singh Judeo threatened Christian workers, saying, "If Christian missionaries don’t stop converting people, we will take up arms." ("Hindu Activists ‘Reconvert’ Christians," April 7, 2005.)
* April 11
Father Mathew, a priest in the east-Indian state of Bihar, was stabbed to death when he refused to pay extortion money to an ex-prisoner he had been counseling. "Gyan Das demanded 100,000 rupees ($2,325) from Father Mathew. ... There was a scuffle in which the father was stabbed four times in the neck and the chest," said Allen R. Johannes, press secretary for the Archdiocese of Patna. ("Catholic Priest Stabbed in Bihar," April 14, 2005.)
* April 19
A mob of 200 Hindus overpowered a police patrol and set fire to the Believer's Church in Thoubal district, Manipur. Following a similar attack in November 2004, authorities had ordered police protection for the church during reconstruction. Villagers have now asked church members to abandon the premises or "face the consequences." ("Church Burned, Christians Attacked in Manipur," April 25.)
* May 1
A crowd of nearly 500 Hindu villagers attacked a house church in Mangalwarapete village, Karnataka state. Assailants molested some of the women among the 60 people present at the Sunday service and burned Bibles and other Christian literature. The mob beat Pastor Paulraj Raju of King Jesus Church until he bled profusely. The attackers identified themselves as members of the Bajrang Dal and the BJP. ("Hindu Extremists Attack Church, Burn Bibles," May 4, 2005.)
* May 7
A Christian couple in Gujarat was attacked by Hindu extremists; Jamubhai Choudhary was slashed with an ax, while his wife Jathriben suffered a bone fracture. Jathriben was discharged from hospital on May 16, but her husband remains in the hospital. ("Christians Suffer Attacks in Southern India," May 20, 2005)
* May 12
RSS members attacked and beat eight students from the Beersheba Bible College at Maraman, Pathanamthitta. The students were making their way to a funeral when about 15 motor-cycle-mounted RSS members assaulted them with sharp weapons. Three of the students required hospitalization. ("Hindu Extremists Attack Bible College Students," May 16, 2005.)
* May 15
Hindu extremists physically attacked 11 Christian families from Jamanya village in Jalgaon district, Maharashtra. Village officials had summoned the families to a community court and asked them to renounce their faith. When the families refused, the men were beaten with heavy sticks and chased from the village. On the following day their wives and children were also assaulted. ("Christian Families Attacked in Maharasthra, India," May 20, 2005.)
* May 18
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) in Orissa threatened to launch a campaign for the dismissal of Christian government officers in response to an order granting equal rights to tribal Christians. Before the order was passed, Christian members of Scheduled Tribes were denied access to education and employment quotas. "It seems to me that people were taking advantage of the [Christian] Santhals by depriving them of these privileges, and that is why people are now raising their voices," said Levinus Kindo, a Christian revenue officer who ordered the change in March before his retirement. ("World Hindu Council Opposes Rights for Tribal Christians," May 18, 2005.)
* May 20
Unknown assailants poured acid over the body of the Rev. K. Daniel in Hyderabad, Andra Pradesh, resulting in his death. The Christian community in the state was shaken by the attack. Law enforcement officials deny the attack was religiously motivated. However Sam Paul of the All India Christian Council told Compass that Daniel had been "threatened many times by the local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh." (“Christians Suffer Attacks in Southern India,” May 20, 2005.)