Friday, August 14, 2009

Religious Freedom Panel Slams India

By Jacqueline L. Salmon, Washington Post

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) plans to announce later today that it has placed India on its watch list because of that country's "inadequate" response to religious violence, particularly against the country's Muslim and Christian minorities.
USCIRF is an independent U.S. agency whose job is to make sure religious freedom is taken into account in U.S. foreign policy. Its watch list consists of countries with governments that tolerate "serious violations of religious freedom." The watch list isn't as draconian as the commission's list of "countries of particular concern" (for governments that tolerate more severe violations of religious freedom).

Either way, it's not a list that most foreign governments like to find themselves on. (Some on the list, such as Burma and Iran, probably don't care.)

It's also likely to annoy the State Department, which has long complained that foreign government mistakenly believe that the commission makes U.S. policy--which it doesn't. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited India in July, when the countries announced agreements to strengthen a relationship that has dramatically improved in recent years.

Yesterday, a State Department spokesperson stressed that the commission is an independent federal commission.

"It doesn't speak for the U.S. government," she said. "While the State Department considers its recommendation very carefully, it is not bound by them."

There are already signs that USCIRF's decision to place India on its watch list could cause problems between the U.S. and India. Some of the eight members of USCIRF had planned a June trip to the country to look into reports of religious violence, but their applications for visas were turned down.

Conservative groups from the Hindu majority criticized the visit. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) of America warned in a statement that a trip would signal that President Barack Obama's administration "does not care if its relationship with a peaceful, democratic nation is jeopardized."

In an interview, USCIRF chairman Leonard Leo rejected the warnings that placing India on the watch list would jeopardize U.S.-Indian relations.

"We always have policy recommendations, and we try to be fairly specific about what our concerns are," he said. "We try not to paint with a broad brush, which is meant to be a signal that we are trying to be honest and fair...We're trying to spark a meaningful dialogue and create a partnership for improving the situation."

In its report, USCIRF paints a grim picture of religious persecution in India, charging that national and local judiciaries and police are unwilling or unable to deal with the religious violence that regularly rocks the country. That includes the 2002 mass killings of Muslims in the state of Gujarat that left 2,000 dead and attacks on Christian churches and individuals in the state of Orissa in 2007 and 2008. USCIRF also defends proselytizers, criticizing laws in several Indian states that make religious conversions difficult. The laws generally require government officials to determine whether it is a "sincere" conversion.

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