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India blocks religious watchdog group

WASHINGTON (BP)–India has rebuffed a U.S. government watchdog group tasked with monitoring religious liberty abroad by denying entry visas for the group’s planned visit.

A delegation from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom intended to discuss conditions with officials in India, which has seen recent outbreaks of violence against religious minorities, especially Christians. The Indian embassy in Washington did not deliver the visas necessary for the delegation’s June 12 departure, however, and has not offered any official explanation for the decision.

“We are particularly disappointed by the new Indian government’s refusal to facilitate an official U.S. delegation to discuss religious freedom issues and government measures to counter communal violence, which has a religious component,” USCIRF chair Felice D. Gaer said in a news release.

The commission’s responsibility is to advise the administration and Congress regarding the conditions for religious liberty overseas. The president selects three members of the panel, while congressional leaders name the other six. The State Department’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom serves as a non-voting member of the commission.

India is the only democracy to have blocked a visit by USCIRF, which had been requesting entry since 2001. More than 20 other countries, including Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia, have allowed the commission to enter.

Suspicion quickly fell on Hindu nationalist groups for pressuring the Indian government into denying the USCIRF’s visas.

The Times of India reported June 17 that prominent Hindu leader Shankaracharya Jayendra Sarawati had demanded that USCIRF not be allowed into the country, labeling the organization an “intrusive mechanism of a foreign government which is interfering with the internal affairs of India.”

The American branch of the Hindu World Council also had bristled at the idea of a USCIRF visit to India, calling it “incomprehensible” and accusing the United States of lumping India, whose constitution guarantees freedom of religion, with countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Cuba.

Sources within the Indian government, quoted by the Times of India, did not confirm that the visas were intentionally withheld, but they did infer that a visit would have caused problems.

“We don’t really care about what they report,” an official said. “But a high-profile visit seen as having government sanctions would have raised hackles in India.”

Religion has often been a contentious matter in India, especially in recent years.

In December 2007, Hindus in the state of Orissa alleged that Christians were behind an attack on Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati and launched a wave of revenge attacks that left four Christians dead, thousands homeless and 95 churches in ashes.

The violence intensified when gunmen assassinated Saraswati at a Hindu school in August 2008. Although police suspected the culprits were Maoist rebels, Hindu extremists quickly blamed Christians and embarked on a furious rampage.

According to Compass Direct News, which reports on Christian persecution worldwide, the Hindu riots left more than 100 people slain, nearly 5,000 houses incinerated, 252 churches burnt to the ground and 13 educational institutions demolished. Thousands of Christians fled into the jungle and government-run relief camps.

Hindus in Orissa are continuing a nearly five-year campaign to pressure Christian converts to adopt Hinduism, and the BBC reported that in 2004 six women and two men were beaten for refusing to abandon Christianity.

Today, Christian leaders in Orissa say things are not much better.

Ajaya Singh of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese told Compass Direct that around 3,000 people are still living in government refugee camps. Despite promises of police protection, they are afraid to return home due to threats from extremists in their villages.

USCIRF has been active in monitoring abuses of religious freedom in India, designating it as a “country of particular concern” following anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat that left more than 2,000 dead. Though the USCIRF removed India from the list in 2005, it has since criticized the violence in Orissa and claims the Indian justice system has moved slowly to prosecute those responsible.

“We understand India’s sensitivities about being criticized for religious discrimination, given its democratic and secular credentials,” the Times of India quoted a commission associate as saying. “But we are concerned that some of the judicial processes with regards to the incidents in Gujarat and Orissa are not functioning properly and we only wanted to get them going.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, is a USCIRF commissioner. He was not scheduled to visit India with the group.
John Evans is an intern with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

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