September 21, 2007
State Department lauds federal government but notes criticisms of officials at all levels.
NEW DELHI – The U.S. Department of State’s 2007 Report on International Religious Freedom gives India’s federal government high marks for respecting religious freedom, but Christian leaders said this does not mean that persecution in the country is less than alarming.
The incidence of anti-Christian violence is much higher than available statistics indicate, the leaders said, as most cases are not reported to the police and are ignored by the media.
“I record and prove between 200 and 400 cases of anti-Christian violence a year in my unofficial white paper released annually since 1997 – but the actual figure may be from 1,000 to 2,000 such cases a year, perhaps even more,” said Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC).
Released last Friday (September 14), the report covering the period from July 1, 2006, to June 30 says the government of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the Indian National Congress or Congress Party, “generally respected” religious freedom in practice.
“Generally respected” is the highest level for religious freedom assigned by the report, according to the preface.
It asserts, however, that there were “organized societal attacks against minority religious groups, particularly in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party” or BJP, India’s most influential Hindu nationalistic party. The report also notes that human rights activists criticized the UPA for alleged “indifference and inaction” in the face of persecution by state and local officials and private citizens.
Quoting faith-based groups in India, including the AICC and the Christian Legal Association (CLA), the report says there were at least 128 attacks against Christians in all of 2006. From July 1, 2006, to June 30, 2007, the AICC reported more than 150 incidents of anti-Christian attacks.
From 130 to 150 attacks in a country of 1 billion may not sound like much, but Christian leaders said that not only are attacks under-reported but that targeting of a minority community is alarming. Moreover, the attacks are concentrated in geographic pockets.
The state department’s report on India states that, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh, more than 55 attacks on Christians by various Hindu extremist groups were reported in the state between July 2006 and April 2007. Of these, 34 were in the city of Jabalpur alone.
“It is the targeting of this minority population that becomes a cause for concern,” said CLA General Secretary Tehmina Arora, pointing out that Christians make up only 2.3 percent, or 24 million, of India’s population.
“India is huge in terms of both its area and population, and therefore some may underestimate its intensity,” she said. “But the fact is that Christians particularly in seven states – namely Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Orissa, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh – are facing the brunt of Hindu extremism.”
The total population in these seven states is more than 354 million people, of which 4 million are Christian.
“Even within these states, certain pockets can be identified as the most sensitive ones,” she said.
Hindus account for more than 80 percent of India’s population, but it is not the common Hindu who becomes violent.
“It is a small minority, namely Hindu extremists, which manages to launch attacks with impunity tacitly extended by some state governments,” she said. “It is against this backdrop that Christian persecution in India should be seen.”
Christians in India are also worried about persecution emerging in southern states, particularly Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, which had been relatively peaceful till recently.
The state department’s report notes that 20 acts of anti-Christian violence were reported in Andhra Pradesh, compared with seven incidents in the previous year.
Christian persecution grew in Andhra Pradesh after the Congress Party government led by Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, a Christian, came into power in May 2004. Accusing the chief minister of allowing missionaries to lure Hindus to Christianity, Hindu extremists increasingly began to attack Christians.
The state department document says there were at least 40 reported anti-Christian attacks in Karnataka, a considerable increase from the six incidents during the previous reporting period. The incidence of anti-Christian attacks has increased in the state since the Janata Dal-Secular party, in coalition with the BJP, took power from the Congress Party in February 2006.
States’ Role in Curbing Freedom
The report on India criticizes “anti-conversion” laws enacted or amended by some state governments, asserting that Congress Party officials in Himachal Pradesh state passed an anti-conversion law that, “similar to other laws of its kind, restricts and regulates religious proselytism.”
Citing religious press outlets, the report notes, “there were four reports of acts of violence against Christians following the passage of an anti-conversion law in Himachal Pradesh in late December 2006. There were no reports during the previous reporting period.”
Anti-conversion laws are in force in three states, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa. Such laws in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh remain on paper, awaiting implementation.
“Public hysteria aside,” Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, told Compass, “it has to be remembered that the real threat to democracy in India today comes from anti-democratic laws and regulations curbing the rights of Christians.”
The report notes that police and other enforcement agencies were slow to “effectively counter societal attacks, including attacks against religious minorities.”
“Despite government efforts to foster communal harmony, some extremists continued to view ineffective investigation and prosecution of attacks on religious minorities, particularly at the state and local levels, as a signal that they could commit such violence with impunity, although numerous cases were in the courts at the end of the reporting period.”
It further states say that despite the federal government’s efforts to reject Hindutva, the nationalist ideology espousing Hindu religious and cultural norms above all others, “it continued to influence some government policies and actions at the state and local levels.”
The report also said that while the UPA government was not accused of violating religious freedom, human rights activists criticized it for alleged “indifference and inaction in the face of abuses committed by state and local authorities and private citizens.”
Lack of Effort
There is a general feeling among Christians that the UPA government is not making efforts to check Christian persecution.
Dayal pointed out that the federal government’s proposed law against religion-related violence may curb anti-Muslim violence, but it would be toothless against anti-Christian attacks as it seeks to check only “large-scale” incidents.
“We do not come under the scrutiny of its defining and screening measures,” Dayal said. “The Christians are dispersed. The violence against them is also dispersed. It may be just one case a year in one village across the country. But there are 400,000 villages, and the total violence may be as much.”
He added that the incidents of persecution may be spread out, but they are not isolated. “If 1,000 isolated cases occurred in one country, they fit a pattern.”
Some Christians said they feel that any attack on religious minorities in a democratic country like India is an attack on freedom.
“Particularly attacks on Christians are not in retaliation against some committed crime, but purely because they practice a different religion from the majority,” Father Dominic Emmanuel, spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Delhi, told Compass. “These attacks cannot be tolerated at all. The government should do its utmost to stop them.”
Copyright 2007 Compass Direct News