Buddhists in India Assault Christian Aid Worker, Friend


Assailants, still at large, abduct and threaten blind volunteer, associate and pregnant wife.

NEW DELHI, September 6 (CDN) — A visually impaired Christian and his friend accused drunken Buddhists of abducting and assaulting them last week after the blind volunteer distributed relief material in a Buddhist-majority town in a region of India devastated by recent floods.

The attackers are still at large after the assault on Wednesday (Sept .1) in the town of Leh in Jammu and Kashmir state’s Ladakh region, where flooding and landslides destroyed hundreds of houses and killed around 200 people on Aug. 6.

The attackers, identified as members of the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), one of the region’s largest and most influential Non-Governmental Organizations, abducted Ram Kumar Thapa, Stanzin Chosphel and his pregnant wife Putali Sherpa because of their Christian faith and beat the men, the victims said.

Thapa, a blind music teacher in his 30s, was abducted from Mahabodhi Gate in Choglamsar area in Leh, where he was distributing relief material, at around 7 p.m. on Wednesday, according to the complaint he filed on Thursday (Sept. 2) with the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission.

LBA members were upset that Thapa was preaching Christianity to displaced residents, according to his complaint. The Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief, a Christian relief agency, is rebuilding homes for the displaced people, mostly Buddhists, in the area.

“I was attacked physically by several unknown assailants before other witnesses nearby,” Thapa stated in the complaint. “Then these men forced me into a vehicle and continued beating me all over my body as they spoke in Ladakhi to each other.”

Thapa, from the eastern state of West Bengal, also stated that the Buddhists contemplated killing him. “They discussed whether to take my life or return to the ‘office,’” he said.

The assailants took Thapa to the office of the LBA in Soma Monastery, where a Buddhist monk was also present, and beat him again, he stated. He was then moved to a room where he could hear the voice of his friend, Chosphel, with his pregnant wife.

Chosphel, a convert from Buddhism, is from Ladakh and his wife is from Nepal. The Buddhist assailants had taken them from their house in the Skalzaling area in Leh after Thapa, under pressure from the LBA members, identified them as his associates, according to the Christian victims.

The attackers showed Thapa’s bruised and bleeding face to Chosphel to warn him against continuing as a Christian, Thapa stated. He was then taken back to the vehicle.

“They placed a gunny sack with a rope onto my lap and explained that this would be my last bed … [after] they throw me into the Indus River and see if a blind man can swim and save himself,” Thapa stated. “I became terribly afraid, since I could smell alcohol on their breath as we sat in the vehicle.”

Thapa begged that his life be spared “so I could see my wife, who must be worried since it was late now.” The kidnappers replied, “Your wife will see you when she finds your body by the river bank,” he stated.

Thapa and his wife, also visually impaired, teach and live at Mahabodhi Residential School for handicapped children.

Thapa stated that when he asked what they wanted from him, “they said I had to leave Ladakh with my family within two days or else they would kill me and my family. It was around 1 a.m. when they dropped me back to my house, bruised and trembling.”

Thapa went to the Housing Colony Police Station on Thursday (Sept. 2) and found out that Chosphel also was there to file his complaint.

Chosphel confirmed that the “office” they were taken to belonged to the LBA. In his complaint to the commission, Chosphel said that around 15 “heavily drunken” men came to abduct him and his wife in their black Bolero, a mid-size SUV.

In the courtyard of the LBA facility, the Buddhists beat Chosphel before his wife, who pleaded for them to stop and asked why they were being assaulted.

“They threatened to beat her as well if she did not keep silent,” Chosphel stated. “Then they dragged me into a room and gagged my mouth so I could not cry out as they beat me with rubber pipes and rods and fists continuously. All along they kept telling me to leave my wife and also renounce my faith in Christianity and return to Buddhism.”

The men released the couple at around 12:30 a.m. after giving them two days to leave Leh or convert to Buddhism, Chosphel stated, “or else they will chop my wife into pieces and kill me and also kill my family … who are still practicing Buddhists.”

The attackers also confiscated their mobile phones.

The victims told Compass that they were still facing a threat on their lives even after filing complaints with police.

Additional Superintendent of Police Stanzin Nurboo told Compass that no one had been arrested because the victims could not name the accused.

Chosphel and his wife, however, told Compass that they would be able to identify the attackers if they saw their faces; at press time, however, they said police had not contacted any of them to do so.

Religious conversion is a sensitive issue in Leh, which borders Pakistan and Tibet, as it is seen as an attack on its distinct religious and cultural identity.

Citing religious and cultural differences with the otherwise Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state, some residents of Ladakh have been asking for union territory status for the region.

As a concession, the Ladakh region was bifurcated into Muslim-majority Kargil district and Buddhist-majority Leh district in 1979, and the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council was also created in 1995 to grant some autonomy to Leh and Kargil districts.

The government of Jammu and Kashmir continues to have responsibility for maintaining law and order and is in charge of the judicial system, communications and higher education.

Of the population of 117,232, over 80 percent of the people in Leh are Buddhist. Muslims make up around 15 percent of the population, Hindus 3 percent and Christians 0.2 percent.

Report from Compass Direct News

Egyptian Convert from Islam Devastated by ‘Delay Tactic’


Court suspends Mohammed Hegazy’s lawsuit pending outcome of separate case.

CAIRO, Egypt, May 17 (CDN) — An Egyptian convert to Christianity said he is devastated by a recent court decision to suspend a lawsuit he filed to change the religion on his identification card from Muslim to Christian.

The First District of the Court of the State Council on April 27 suspended Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy’s case until the Constitutional Court rules on a challenge to Article 47, a section of the civil code that in theory allows Egyptians to change the religion listed on their ID card.

Hegazy, 27, said the suspension endangers his children’s welfare and will force them to lead a double life indefinitely – at home they will be taught to live in accordance with the Bible, and outside it they will be taught to live according to the Quran.

If they ultimately decide to follow Jesus, Hegazy said, his children will be declared “apostates” and be persecuted the rest of their lives for “leaving Islam.” Hegazy, who has suffered severely after Egypt’s religious authorities declared him an apostate, including being imprisoned by State Security Investigations (SSI) several times, said he filed the case so his children would avoid the same fate.

“I didn’t want them to have to go through the same harassment and persecution that I went through,” he said. “My daughter won’t be able to go to school without constantly fearing for her safety. She might even be killed simply because she is my daughter.”

Hegazy is arguably the most well-known Muslim convert to Christianity in Egypt. He rose to national prominence in August 2007 when he became the first Muslim convert in Egypt to sue for the right to change the religious status on his identification card to “Christian.”

Hegazy said he became a Christian in 1998 after seeking God during a period of intense study of religion. In his final assessment, he said, he found that Islam was void of the love and forgiveness found in Christianity.

Not long after his conversion, Hegazy said, he was arrested by SSI agents who tortured him for three days. In 2001, the SSI arrested Hegazy for writing a book of poems critical of the agency, which has been accused of abusive practices to preserve the regime. In 2002, the SSI arrested Hegazy and held him for more than two months in a prison he compared to a “concentration camp.”

In addition to the government response to his conversion, Hegazy said his mother and father have attacked him repeatedly for becoming a Christian.

“In the culture in Egypt, for a person to change his religion, it’s a big deal because it’s a question of honor and tradition,” Hegazy said. “My dad and my mom took it in a really bad way and would beat me.”

Hegazy married another convert from Islam, Katarina, in 2005. Katarina also wants her ID changed but fears government reaction; there are numerous reports circulating among Egyptian Christians about female converts being arrested and tortured by the SSI or simply disappearing in Egypt’s prison system under Egypt’s Emergency Law. Renewed last week for another two years, the law grants the government broad powers of arbitrary incarceration that human rights groups have roundly criticized.

Delay Tactic

When Hegazy filed his suit in 2007, he and his wife were expecting their first child. Overnight, Egyptian media propelled him into the national limelight. And the persecution got much worse.

Two religious scholars from Al-Azhar University, one of the leading voices of Islamic thought in the Middle East, publicly declared it was legal to kill Muslims that convert to Christianity. In one incident, extremists surrounded a home where Hegazy had once lived and stayed there for several days. In another incident, a group of men ransacked and set fire to Hegazy’s apartment while he was away.

Throughout his legal proceedings, several of Hegazy’s attorney’s have dropped out of the case after receiving death threats, being sued or being arrested. On Jan. 28, 2009, a court ruled that Muslims were forbidden to convert to another religion and ordered Hegazy to pay the costs of hearing his case. He appealed.

Hegazy lives in hiding. Unable to work, the former journalist is supported by friends and other Christians. Last month’s ruling will likely delay a decision in Hegazy’s case for several years and keep him and his family in limbo.

“The court is using this decision as a way of delaying having to make an ultimate decision,” Hegazy said.

The couple’s first child, Mariam, is now 2 years old, and their second child, Yousef, is 3 months old. Because Hegazy and his wife are unable to change their ID to reflect their true faith, the government lists both of their children as Muslims. If they choose to become Christians, they will be considered apostates who, in accordance with longstanding interpretation of the guiding scriptures of Islam, must be killed by faithful Muslims.

“It makes me feel like religion in Egypt isn’t something you can choose by your own free will; it’s something that you are forced to be, and nobody has a choice to choose what their religion is,” Hegazy said. “It bothers me a lot because my kids know they are being brought up as Christians in their home and their parents are Christians, but they can’t practice their religion outside the house.”

Inconsistent Rules

Every Egyptian citizen age 16 or older must carry a state-issued ID card that is required for opening a bank account, enrolling children in school and for starting a business, among other activities. Religious identity also determines to which civil or family court one is subject.

Of primary importance to Hegazy is that the religion indicated on the ID card determines what religious education classes a child is required to take in school.

There is a stark contrast in Egypt between the treatment of Christians who want to change the religious affiliation on their ID card to Islam and Muslims who want to change their affiliation to Christianity. Generally speaking, because Muslims consider the preaching of Muhammad to be the last of three revelations from God to man, in practice “freedom of religion” in Egypt means only the freedom to convert to Islam.

Article 47 of Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the constitution also states that Islam is the official religion of Egypt. Article 2 of the constitution states that Islamic law, or sharia, is “the principle source of legislation” in Egypt.

The difference between the treatment of converts to Christianity and converts to Islam is illustrated in the case of Samy Aziz Fahmy. The week before the court postponed Hegazy’s case, Fahmy, a Coptic Christian from Saayda village, changed his legal status to Islam. He received his ID card reflecting his new religion on the same day he applied for it – on the day he turned 18, the legal age for conversion.

“I think it’s very weird and not fair that when Christians want to convert to Islam there’s no problem, their papers go through and there’s no discrimination against them,” Hegazy said. “But when Muslims want to convert to Christianity, all of the sudden it’s a big deal.”

Hegazy is not alone in his legal battles. After he filed his case, other Muslim converts sought court action to change their IDs. Like Hegazy, most are in hiding of some sort. Hegazy’s lead attorney, Ashraf Edward, said he is working on several ID cases. He estimates there are more than 4 million converts to Christianity who want to change the religion listed on their ID, though the basis for that figure is unclear.

“There are a lot of people who want to change their ID, but they’re afraid of turning it into a court case because they don’t want to be persecuted,” Edward said.

International Condemnation

Human rights groups and government agencies around the world have condemned Egypt for its record on religious freedom. In a report issued earlier this month, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom outlined Egypt’s problems with identification cards and the treatment of converts from Islam, taking note of Hegazy’s case.

“The Egyptian government generally does not recognize conversions of Muslims to other religions,” the report states. “Egyptian courts also have refused to allow Muslims who convert to Christianity to change their identity cards to reflect their conversions. In the first such case, brought by Muhammad Hegazy, a lower court ruled in January 2008 that Muslims are forbidden from converting away from Islam based on principles of Islamic law. The court also stated that such conversion would constitute a disparagement of the official state religion and an enticement for other Muslims to convert. Hegazy, who has been subjected to death threats and is currently in hiding, has appealed the ruling.”

The report cited numerous other problem areas in regard to freedom of worship in Egypt, and the country remained on USCIRF’s Watch List for 2010. Egypt has been on the list since 2002. Among the changes USCIRF said are necessary in Egypt is how religion is reported on Egypt’s national ID card.

The commission said Egypt must “ensure that every Egyptian is protected against discrimination in social, labor, and other rights by modifying the national identity card, either to omit mention of religious affiliation or make optional any mention of religious affiliation.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Spike in Anti-Christian Violence Feared before Burma Elections


Attacks on Christians seen as politically expedient in majority-Buddhist nation.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, January 21 (CDN) — As Burma’s military junta gears up for its first parliamentary election in two decades this year, observers fear attacks on the Christian minority could intensify.

Mungpi Suangtak, assistant editor of a New Delhi-based news agency run by exiled Burmese journalists, the Mizzima News, said the Burmese junta has “one of the world’s worst human rights records” and will “definitely” attack religious and ethnic minorities more forcefully in the run-up to the election.

The military regime, officially known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), pledged to hold the election this year, and analysts believe polls will be held after July in the country, also known as Myanmar.

Suangtak told Compass that the Buddhist nationalist junta would target Christians particularly in Karen state, bordering Thailand, and in Chin State, bordering India and Bangladesh.

Many Christians are part of the Karen National Union and the Chin National Front, armed resistance groups that have been demanding freedom or autonomy for their respective states for decades, and therefore the junta sees the Christian minority as a threat, said Suangtak.

There are over 100,000 Christian Chin refugees in India who have fled the junta’s attacks in the past two decades, according to Human Rights Watch.

Christians in Karen state are not safe. A Karen Christian worker living in the Mae La refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border told Compass that ethnic Christians were facing human rights abuses by the junta “on a daily basis.” Most recently, Burma army soldiers attacked a church, murdered a local farmer and injured others in Nawng Mi village on Dec. 19, 2009, reported Burma Campaign UK.

Parts of Karen state fall under the “Black Zone” – identified by the Burma army as an area under the control of armed resistance groups where its soldiers are free to open fire on anyone on sight – and the junta has been launching indiscriminate attacks to take control of village after village, said the Karen Christian.

“Those who are not able to flee across the border during such attacks are either killed or forcibly relocated in and confined to temporary camps set up by the junta,” the Christian said. “Since the army litters surrounding areas with landmines, many local people die or get injured while trying to run away from or coming to the camps to look for their relatives.”

Over 150,000 refugees from Karen and neighboring Karenni states of Burma are living along the Thai side of the border, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than half of them are Christian.

A representative of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), which trains and sends teams of local people to help victims of the junta’s attacks inside Burma, said youths have been forced to become Buddhists in Chin state, where over 80 percent of the people are Christian.

Printing of Bibles is restricted, and churches are destroyed on a regular basis in the state, the source told Compass on condition of anonymity.

Access for foreign visitors to Chin state is, with some exceptions, prohibited, and the state is widely acknowledged to be the poorest part of the country, said Rogers.

“According to one Chin, the reason Chin state is denied resources, and foreigners are denied access, is specifically because the overwhelming majority of Chins are Christian,” stated a 2009 report by London-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “The SPDC has, it is believed, taken a deliberate decision to discriminate against Chin Christians.”

The report cited a Chin Christian man who had served in the Burma army who faced discrimination.

“I had a colleague who was a Chin who became a Buddhist and he was promoted,” the Christian says in the report. “I was told to change my religion if I wanted to get promotion. I refused to convert.”

The report also quoted a Chin Christian as saying that students from a Christian youth fellowship at a university in Kalaymyo, in Chin state’s Sagaing Division, collected funds among their own community to construct a small church.

“However, in 2008 and again in 2009, ‘extremist Buddhists’ destroyed the church building, and when the students reported the incident to the local authorities, the youth fellowship leaders were arrested, detained and then released with a warning,” he said.

Religious Pretext

Suangtak said successive governments in Burma have promoted Buddhism since General Ne Win took power in 1962, leaving Christians insecure.

“There is a general feeling in Burma that the state represents Buddhism, and most Christians, particularly from conservative sections, cannot trust the regime,” said Suangtak.

Benedict Rogers of CSW said the junta doesn’t differentiate between individual Christians involved in armed struggle and ordinary Christians who have not taken up arms.

“And when it attacks villages in conflict zones, churches and pastors are often among the first to be attacked,” Rogers said.

A Christian worker from Burma’s Mandalay city, however, told Compass that thus far he has heard no reports of any major anti-Christian incidents there. He said he was hoping the junta would try to woo people with peace rather than violence.

“But nothing can be said about the unpredictable junta,” he said, adding that it was difficult to receive or send information in Burma. “Even in cities, the information infrastructure is limited and expensive, phones are tapped and e-mails are monitored. And the press is owned by the state.”

Rogers, deputy chairman of the human rights commission for the U.K.’s Conservative Party, said the Buddhist nationalist regime “distorts and perverts Buddhism for political purposes and is intolerant of non-Burman and non-Buddhist ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims.”

Of the 56 million people in Burma, around 89 percent are Buddhist, with only 4 percent Christian.

Given that the junta merely uses religion for political power, it doesn’t target Christians alone, Suangtak said.

“The junta has no respect for any religion, be it Christians or Buddhists, and anyone who opposes its rule is dealt with harshly.”

Burma was ruled by military regimes from 1962 to 1990; at that point the National League for Democracy party, led by Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won the parliamentary election. But the regime seized power again by imprisoning members of parliament after the election.

Rogers, who has co-authored a soon-to-be-published biography of SPDC chairman Senior General Than Shwe, said that while the armed groups are not perfect, they are essentially fighting to defend their people against a “brutal regime” and are “not in any way terrorists.”

“The armed groups have sometimes launched pre-emptive attacks on the military, but they have never attacked non-military targets and have never engaged in indiscriminate acts of violence,” he said. “Even the pre-emptive acts are conducted for defensive, rather than offensive, purposes.”

Rogers added that resistance groups were fighting to defend their people.

“Individual Christians who have joined the armed ethnic groups do so out of a perfectly biblical concept of just war, the right to defend your people from gross injustice.”

Added an FBR source, “In Burma, no one protects except the pro-democracy resistance groups, and all relief inside the country is only possible because of them.”

International Disrepute

The 2009 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom states that Burma’s military junta had “one of the world’s worst human rights records.”

“Burma’s Christian populations face forced promotion of Buddhism and other hardships in ethnic minority areas where low-intensity conflict has been waged for decades,” the report states. “In addition, a new law passed in early 2009 essentially bans independent ‘house church’ religious venues, many of which operate because permission to build church buildings is regularly denied.”

The report also pointed out that in January 2009, authorities in Rangoon ordered at least 100 churches to stop holding services and forced them to sign pledges to that effect. Burma, which the ruling junta describes as “The Golden Land” on its official website, has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. Department of State since 1999.

Even after the 2010 election, little is expected to change.

The FBR source said the election was not likely to be free and fair, pointing out that the new constitution the junta adopted after an apparently rigged referendum in 2008 virtually enshrined military power.

“However, having an election is better than not having one at all,” the source said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Turkish Police Official Axed amid Allegations in Murders


Head of intelligence allegedly hid evidence, failed to prevent slaying of Christians.

MALATYA, Turkey, October 22 (CDN) — The head of Turkey’s police intelligence department was removed on Friday (Oct. 16) amid allegations that he failed to prevent the murder of the Christian editor of an Armenian weekly and the slayings of three Christians in this city in southeastern Turkey.

Ramazan Akyurek is also accused of withholding evidence in those cases and improperly investigating the murder of a Catholic priest in 2006.

After a Malatya trial hearing on Friday, prosecution lawyers in the case commended the removal of Akyurek for negligence but said it came too late. Akyurek has been placed in a different position within police headquarters in Ankara.

Prior to the January 2007 murder of Hrant Dink, editor of the Armenian weekly Agos, Akyurek allegedly received a report about the orchestrated plan to kill him. That clearly implied that Akyurek was one of the masterminds behind the murder, according to Erdal Dogan, one of the prosecuting attorneys in the Malatya case.

While heading the investigation of the Dink murder, Aykurek reportedly not only witheld intelligence but also tried to affect the outcome of the trial, claiming in his investigation report that a group of “friends” planned to kill Dink because he offended Turkey.

“This is a disaster,” Dogan said. “The same happened with the Malatya massacre. “We know he had information on all the developments of the massacre, but he didn’t act on it. He tried to cover it up. We know that they were following the movements of the killers.”

Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske were bound hand and foot, tortured and then slain with knives at the Zirve Publishing Co. in April 2007. Dogan said that had Zirve staff members not suspected that something was wrong and called police, the five young men who were caught at the scene of the crime most likely would not have been apprehended.

“It’s difficult to know to what extent this character affected the investigations during that time,” Dogan said. “This is why the fact that they took him from his position was important, but they removed him late; they removed him very late.”

Akyurek was head of police in the city of Trabzon in 2006 when Catholic priest Andrea Santoro was killed. It was under his auspices that a young man was arrested and imprisoned for the murders without investigation into who was behind the murder, according to Dogan.

In the same year, Akyurek was promoted to head Turkey’s police intelligence unit.

“Even though Aykurek was incompetent as a police head and covered up crimes, he became the head of intelligence with access to all of Turkey’s intelligence,” Dogan said.

More Evidence Sees Light

Akyurek was fired about a week after Turkish press received leaked documents showing payments the Malatya gendarmerie made in exchange for intelligence on missionary activities between March 2007 and November 2008. The amounts totaled nearly 10,000 Turkish lira (US$6,840).

At Friday’s hearing the Malatya court heard the testimony of Murat Gokturk, a former petty officer in the Malatya intelligence department at the time of the murders. Gokturk had made contact with Huseyin Yelki, a Christian volunteer at Zirve who is one of the suspects in the murders because of his heavy involvement with gendarmerie in the months leading up to and directly after the slayings.

Gokturk testified that he contacted Yelki and requested a New Testament in Arabic so he could learn the language better, as he has an Arabic heritage. He claimed that when he contacted Yelki from his gendarmerie office, he and the intelligence department were not following missionary activities.

“Missionary activities are legal,” said Gokturk. “This is a religious and conscience right. It’s not a crime.”

Prosecuting lawyers asked that the judges record Gokturk’s statement that missionary activities are legal. They later explained that since all other evidence shows that officials did spy on missionaries in Malatya, such a statement showed they were aware that they were doing so in violation of their legal jurisdiction.

“We questioned the witness [Gokturk], but he tried to hide the truth either by saying, ‘I don’t remember,’ or by lying,” said Dogan. “But evidence shows that he and Huseyin Yelki had a very close relationship and information exchange, and it’s obvious that this was not a simple information exchange. They met many, many times.”

The European Union Commission report on Turkey’s progress in 2009 was also published last week. Under the section on democracy and the rule of law, the report noted that high-profile cases such as the Malatya and Dink trials, which are connected to the alleged criminal network Ergenekon, raised concerns about the quality of investigations. The report noted a need “to improve the working relationship between the police and the gendarmerie on the one hand and the judiciary on the other.”

Concerning freedom of religion, the report noted that missionaries are widely perceived as a threat to the integrity of Turkey and Islam. It also pointed out that the Ministry of Justice allowed judicial proceedings under Article 301 of the Criminal Code – which criminalizes “insulting Turkishness” – in the case of Turkish Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal for sharing their faith with others.

This last case has also been linked to the Ergenekon cabal believed to have masterminded the Santoro, Dink and Malatya murders. It has continued for three years with no resolution.

“It’s finally clear that there is a connection between Santoro, Dink and Malatya and everyone is talking that way,” said Dogan, noting how the prosecuting lawyers in the cases as well as the media perceive the link. “It is now obvious that these three crimes came from the same center.”

The Malatya court is still waiting for an answer from the Ergenekon judges about whether the murder of the three Christians will be joined into the the latter case, under which more than 100 former military, political figures, journalists and others have been arrested.

Dogan, however, said that whether the Malatya case is connected with the Ergenekon case is now secondary, and that it is probably better for the Malatya trial to stay separate to determine what really happened.

“It’s enough for me that this picture is clear,” said Dogan of the link between the cases and Ergenekon. “There is no doubt for me. If they connect them or not it doesn’t matter. Because when the court case goes there, Ergenekon is so complicated that the Malatya case could get lost in it.”

The next hearing of the Malatya trial is set for Nov. 13.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Hostilities Flare in BJP-Run Madhya Pradesh, India


Anti-Christian violence, efforts to tarnish church increase in past five years.

NEW DELHI, October 14 (CDN) — Since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Madhya Pradesh in December 2003, Christians in the state have suffered increased attacks and concerted efforts to tarnish their image, church leaders said.

Before the BJP took office the state recorded two or three attacks against Christians per year, they said, whereas Jabalpur Archbishop Gerald Almeida said that in the past five years 65 baseless charges of forceful conversion – commonly accompanied by mob violence – have been registered in his diocese alone.

“There are some groups who are closely monitoring the Christian movement, and these people are bent on creating problems for the Christians for the past five years,” Almeida told Compass.

The state is not able to control these groups, he added. Indeed, police routinely working with Hindu extremist groups filed an average of more than three unsubstantiated complaints of “coerced” conversions each month in the past five years, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh (see sidebar below).

In the first eight months of this year, Madhya Pradesh saw the third highest number of attacks against Christians and Christian institutions in the country with 11, behind Karnataka with 43 and Andhra Pradesh with 14, according to Christian advocacy organizations.

The Rev. Anand Muttungal, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh, said growing attacks on Christians were a symptom of fear among Hindu extremists that the Catholic Church’s influence is spreading.

“The Church as an organization is doing very well in many fields,” Muttungal said. “It causes those fundamentalists to worry. It could be one of the main reasons for the continuous attacks on Christians.”

Madhya Pradesh has a Christian population of 170,381, only 0.3 percent of the total in the state, according to the 2001 census. The state’s history of religious intolerance runs deep, with an “anti-conversion” law passed in 1968 that has serves as a pretext for harassing Christians.

Igniting anti-Christian violence shortly after the BJP came to power was an incident in Jhabua district, where the body of a 9-year-old girl called Sujata was found in one of the Christian schools on Jan. 11, 2004. Although a non-Christian confessed to the crime, Hindu extremists used the event to justify various attacks against the Christian community.

Abuses became so rampant in 2005 and 2006 that the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) sent a fact-finding team to Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in June 2006. Investigators found that Hindu extremists had frequently invoked the state’s anti-conversion law as a means to incite mobs against Christians and to get Christians arrested without evidence.

Jabalpur Archbishop Almeida cited cases chronicled by the NCM such as the arrest under the anti-conversion law of two local women who were merely distributing gospel tracts in March 2006. Almeida also cited the NCM report on the jailing of four pastors in January 2006 for alleged “forceful conversion” after Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal dragged them to a Hindu temple and forced them to deny Christ.

Catholic Church records show that in 2007, a 70-year-old woman identified only as Mrs. Godwin was arrested along with another woman on charges of forceful conversion; they too were only distributing religious literature, a right they had under the nation’s constitution.

Christian leaders said one aim of such abuses of the state’s anti-conversion law is to tarnish the image of Christians by showing them as lawbreakers. Hate propaganda and spurious allegations against Christians continue unabated in the state, church leaders said.

The customary practice in India and especially in Madhya Pradesh, they said, is for Hindu extremists to raise false allegations on the slimmest of pretexts and get police to make hurried arrests.

Political Machinery

After the NCM report in 2006 first documented the violence, the Madhya Pradesh political machinery’s influence became evident when State Minorities Commission Chairman Anwar Mohammed Khan asserted that reports of Hindu extremists attacking Christians in the state were “baseless.”

Khan told Frontline magazine that extremists had not targeted Christians. The magazine also quoted state Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan as saying the BJP government was greatly concerned about “unethical conversions” – presumably of Hindus to Christianity.

The magazine criticized the state Minorities Commission for speaking “the same language as the Bajrang Dal and the state chief minister,” thereby failing its mandate to defend minorities.

This year the commission tried to increase state control over church activities, unofficially recommending that the government enact a law to set up a board to manage church properties such as schools, colleges, hospitals and charities. The Christian community strongly protested, and the state withdrew the proposal.

Leo Cornelio, archbishop of Bhopal, said the Minorities Commission recommendation “shows beyond doubt that it is disloyal to minorities” and “loyal to the government,” according to the Indian Catholic.

The battle over state control of church properties is not over. Muttungal told Compass that the Minorities Commission has started to collect details of church properties through the Education Department. It is certain, he said, that this will lead to a legal battle involving the Education Department, Minorities Commission and the Catholic Church.

SIDEBAR

Police Collusion Seen in ‘Forced Conversion’ Complaints

NEW DELHI, October 14 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu extremist groups in collusion with the state police filed an average of more than three baseless complaints of “coerced” conversions per month in the past five years – shortly after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power – according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh.

“I have gathered information from all the districts of the state, according to which the number of [forced or fraudulent] conversion complaints against Christians in the last five years is over 180,” the Rev. Anand Muttungal, spokesman for the state’s Catholic body, told Compass.

Muttungal said he asked the Madhya Pradesh State Crime Records Bureau, a body under the state interior ministry that monitors criminal complaints, about the number of forced conversion complaints in the last five years, and the state agency put the number wrongly at fewer than 35.

Muttungal also said most of the complaints were filed by third parties – not the supposed “victims” – who were unable to produce any unlawfully converted people to support their allegations. He added that the complainants were mainly members of the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal, youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP).

“In Jabalpur, the complaints were lodged mainly by the Hindu Dharam Sena [Hindu Religion Army],” he said.

Most recently, the leader of the Hindu Dharam Sena on Sept. 27 got police to interrogate, without cause, a Catholic group traveling through Jabalpur. The Rev. Anto Mundamany of the Carmelite of Mary Immaculate order said the inspector-in-charge of the Civil Lines police station and four other policemen came to the Carmel Niketan center, where the group had stopped for dinner. Police interrogated him and the 45 Catholic visitors about their religious identity, he said, to determine whether the visitors were Hindus whom the priests and nuns at the center might be forcibly trying to convert.

Journalists accompanied the police, and the following day local newspapers reported on the incident, portraying the Christians as inherently suspect.

“Although the police left after making sure that all the participants who had arrived for an inter-parish tour were Christians, the newspapers made no mention of that fact,” Mundamany said.

The local daily Dainik Bhaskar reported that Yogesh Agarwal, head of the Hindu Dharam Sena, had informed police about a supposed “conversion plot” by the Catholic order.

“There can be little doubt that the police are party to this disturbing trend,” Muttungal said.

The incidence of anti-Christian attacks is the highest in the state in Jabalpur – local Christians say the city witnessed at least three attacks every month until recently, mainly by Agarwal and his cohorts. Although numerous criminal complaints are pending against Agarwal, he remains at large.

A Christian requesting anonymity said police officers personally act on his complaints against Christian workers.

A June 2006 report by the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) found that Hindu nationalist groups in Madhya Pradesh had frequently invoked the state’s anti-conversion law as a pretext to incite mobs against Christians. The NCM report also pointed at police collusion in the attacks.

“The life of Christians has become miserable at the hands of miscreants in connivance with the police,” the NCM said in its report. “There are allegations that when atrocities were committed on Christians, the police remained mere spectators, and in certain cases they did not even register their complaints.”

The NCM is an independent body created by Parliament in 1993 to monitor and safeguard the rights of minorities.

Muttungal said the Catholic Bishops’ Conference would approach the state high court with the facts it has gathered to prove police involvement in complaints against Christians.

Most complaints against Christians are registered under Section 3 of the Madhya Pradesh “Freedom of Religion Act” of 1968, popularly known as an anti-conversion law. The section states, “No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet any such conversion.”

Offenses under the anti-conversion law are “cognizable,” meaning police are empowered to register a complaint, investigate and arrest for up to 24 hours, without a warrant, anyone accused of forced conversion.

Police also use Sections 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to arrest Christians. Section 153A refers to “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.” Section 295A concerns “deliberate and malicious acts to outrage religious feelings.” These IPC crimes are also cognizable.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christians Concerned over Acquittals in Orissa, India Violence


Lax investigation, prosecution, lack of witness protection cited as reasons for injustice.

NEW DELHI, September 30 (CDN) — Only 24 people have been convicted a year after anti-Christian mayhem took place in India’s Orissa state, while the number of acquittals has risen to 95, compounding the sense of helplessness and frustration among surviving Christians.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, called the trials “a travesty of justice.”

Last month a non-profit group, the Peoples Initiative for Justice and Peace (PIJP), reportedly found that as many as 2,500 complaints were filed with police following the violence in August-September 2008 in the eastern state’s Kandhamal district. The violence killed at least 100 people and burned more than 4,500 houses and over 250 churches and 13 educational institutions. It also rendered 50,000 people, mostly Christian, homeless.

Police, however, registered only 827 complaints and arrested fewer than 700 people, even though 11,000 people were named as attackers in those complaints, according to a PIJP survey.

“The manner of the judicial processes in the Kandhamal fast-track courts is tragic where all too many people have managed to escape conviction for crimes as serious as conspiracy for brutal, premeditated murder and deliberate arson,” Dayal told Compass.

Among those acquitted was Manoj Pradhan, who allegedly led mobs that killed Christians and burned their houses a few months before he became a state legislator from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Facing charges in five cases of murder and six of arson, Pradhan has been acquitted in three cases.

On Thursday (Sept. 24), the judge of Fast Track Court-II, C.R. Das, acquitted Pradhan and another suspect, Mantu Nayak, on charges of killing Khageswar Digal for refusing to “reconvert” to Hinduism, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI). Digal was a 60-year-old Catholic and resident of Shankarakhol area in Chakapada Block in Kandhamal.

“The court acquitted the BJP MLA [Member of Legislative Assembly] and Nayak due to lack of proper evidence against them,” Special Public Prosecutor Pratap Patra told PTI.

The Rev. Ajay Singh, an activist from the Catholic Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, said Digal’s son testified in court that he was witness to the killing of his father and knew the killers, and yet the accused were acquitted.

“It was a brutal murder, possibly a case of human sacrifice,” Singh said.

Digal was dragged from a vehicle before being killed on Sept. 24 last year – one month after the assassination of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati by Maoists (extreme Marxists), which triggered the violence as Hindu extremists wrongly blamed Christians.

Singh spoke to the son of the deceased Digal, Rajendra Digal, who said his parents left their village after the violence and took shelter in the state capital, Bhubaneswar.

The elder Digal, who owned a grocery shop and 35 goats, returned to his village to see his house and livestock. After selling some of the goats, he boarded a public bus to Phulbani, Kandhamal district headquarters, to start his journey back to Bhubaneswar around noon on Sept. 24. As the bus started, however, some assailants allegedly led by Pradhan stopped the bus and dragged Digal out. They also broke his leg.

The attackers were said to have taken Digal to his village, where they looted his shop. Then they allegedly took him and eight of his goats to a nearby forest, where they feasted on the goat meat throughout the night.

When Rajendra Digal heard about it, he informed police, who allegedly took no interest in the complaint. Twelve days later, his father’s body, naked and burned with acid, was found 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the village. His genitals had also been chopped off.

Rajendra Digal said he believes his father may have been the victim of human sacrifice involving ritual feasting and torture.

Shoddy Probe, Lack of Evidence

A representative of the Christian Legal Association (CLA) said the police had been conducting investigations improperly.

The CLA source pointed out that in another Fast-Track Court-I case in which Pradhan was one of the accused, police had wrongly recorded the age of the informant, Bhutia Digal.

“The court observed that if the police could not cite the age of the informant correctly, how could they have investigated the case properly?” said the source, adding that such discrepancies were found in far too many cases.

During the violence in August-September 2008, the BJP was part of the ruling coalition with a local party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). The latter recently broke ties with the Hindu nationalist BJP, blaming it for violence in March, a month before the state assembly election.

The BJP lost the April-May election, and the BJD emerged as the stand-alone ruling party. It is believed that the state administration began taking action against the assailants only after the coalition split in March – six months too late, which possibly provided enough time for suspects to remove evidence and threaten witnesses.

Witnesses are still being threatened or bribed, according to rights groups.

On Thursday (Sept. 24), the day the BJP legislator was acquitted, the fast-track court also released five others accused of arson in the Tikabali area of Kandhamal in a separate case, reported the PTI.

Singh said the witnesses were either intimidated or bribed and therefore turned hostile to prosecutors in court. Friends of the accused took the witnesses to the court in their vehicle, he pointed out.

Dayal said the Orissa High Court should have taken notice of the increasing number of acquittals.

“A man now an MLA seems to be beyond the law,” he said. “I would demand a high-powered judicial review by the High Court of Orissa itself, or failing that, by civil society, which should set up an independent commission of retired judges and senior lawyers.”

Singh said police investigations and prosecutions were a “sham.” There is also “a pressing need for witness protection,” he said.

He added that there were reports of witnesses being intimidated and threatened in various villages, such as Dodingia, K. Nuagam, Phiringia and Solesoru. “Police are not entertaining complaints of the threat to the witnesses,” Singh said.

Dayal highlighted three essential problems: The quality of the charge-sheets prepared by police; the role of the public prosecutor in pressing the charges as prepared by police; and the circumstances under which eyewitnesses, “often sons and daughters of those killed, cannot attest to the truth or are forced into silence,” he said.

“India does not have a witness-protection program, and surely Kandhamal has none at all,” Dayal said. “Witnesses have to pass through an aggressive environment which affectively silences them. They are human beings and fear future violence, having seen brutal violence in the past.”

Singh and Dayal demanded that the cases be heard outside Kandhamal, preferably outside Orissa state.

SIDEBAR

First Life Sentences Handed Down for Orissa, India Killing

NEW DELHI, September 30 (Compass Direct News) – A fast-track court in Orissa state on Sept. 23 delivered its first life sentences for those convicted of murder in 2008 violence in Kandhamal district, sentencing five people to life imprisonment for their involvement in the killing of Pastor Akbar Digal.

Digal, 40, pastor of a Baptist church in Tatamaha village under Raikia police jurisdiction in Kandhamal district, was killed on Aug. 26, 2008 after refusing the slayers’ demand that he forsake Christianity and convert to Hinduism. His body was reportedly cut to pieces and then burned.

He is survived by his wife, Ludhia Digal, and five children.

Additional Sessions Judge Sobhan Kumar Das of Fast Track Court-I at Phulbani district headquarters sentenced Sabita Pradhan, 30; Papu Pradhan, 30; Abinash Pradhan, 29; Dharmaraj Pradhan, 32; and Mania Pradhan, 28, to life in prison and a fine of 5,000 rupees (US$104). The five were arrested after Pastor Digal’s wife filed a First Information Report on Aug. 29, 2008.

Previous to these sentences, two fast-track courts had sentenced 12 people to prison for terms ranging only from four to six years. The government set up the two fast-track courts to try nearly 900 cases related to anti-Christian violence that erupted in August 2008. The first conviction was determined on June 30.

The special Phulbani court also sentenced six others to three years’ rigorous imprisonment on Sept. 22 for an arson attack on a journalist’s house in Kandhamal’s Phiringia village on Dec. 12, 2007.

Police had arrested 11 people in this case, but the court acquitted five for “lack of evidence.” Convicted were Ganpati Kanhar, Rabindra Kanhar, Parmeshwar Kanhar, Daleswar Kanhar, Tuba Kanhar and Vijay Kanhar, whose ages range from 25 to 40 years. They were also fined 4,000 rupees (US$83) each.

Report from Compass Direct News 

INDIA: REFUSAL OF VISAS TO U.S. PANEL STUNS CHRISTIANS


Commission on religious freedom would have found violence-torn Orissa far from normal.

NEW DELHI, June 29 (Compass Direct News) – The Indian government is silent on why it refused visas to allow members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to visit troubled Orissa state, but there are indications that it was ducking protests from Hindu nationalist groups.

The USCIRF team was to leave for India on June 12, but the Indian embassy in Washington did not give them visas in time, the religious panel said in a June 17 statement.

“Our Commission has visited China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and over 20 other countries,” Commission Chair Felice D. Gaer said in the statement. “India, a close ally of the United States, has been unique among democracies in delaying and denying USCIRF’s ability to visit. USCIRF has been requesting visits since 2001.”

The team was to discuss religious freedom with officials of the new government, which began its second five-year term on May 22, as well as with religious leaders, civil society activists and others in the wake of anti-Christian attacks in Kandhamal district of the eastern state of Orissa in December 2007 and August-September 2008.

The U.S. panel also intended to discuss conditions in the western state of Gujarat, where more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in a communal riot in 2002. The victims have reportedly not been properly rehabilitated, and many of their attackers remain at large. In 2005 the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was denied a visa to the United States to attend the World Gujarati Meet because of his alleged involvement in the violence.

In 2002 the USCIRF, a bipartisan federal commission, recommended India be designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) following the 2002 violence in Gujarat. India was removed from the CPC list in 2005.

The Commission released its 2009 annual report on religious freedom across the globe on May 1 but put the India report on hold, planning to prepare it after the intended visit this month.

“I am profoundly surprised and distressed that it is the government of Dr. Manmohan Singh, in its second and so much secure term, which has denied visas to the USCIRF at the last moment,” said John Dayal, member of India’s National Integration Council.

Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC), told Compass that such a decision would have been more expected under the previous administration of the BJP-led alliance.

“There would have been an acceptable, albeit very perverse, logic if a National Democratic Alliance, led by the BJP federal government – as existed in New Delhi until 2004 – had refused visas to the USCIRF,” he said, “because they had so much to hide and because that government’s professed ideological moorings were in fascism and theocratic arrogance.”

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the left-of-center Congress Party, won the general elections in April and May of this year with a comfortable majority in. While the UPA got 262 of the 543 parliamentary seats, the National Democratic Alliance, led by the Hindu nationalist BJP, could bag only 160.

The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, said the Indian government’s decision was “very unfortunate.”

“Its visit and objective report would have helped in clearing the air of suspicion about the whole tragic episode in Kandhamal,” he said. “For, since the tragic events, there have been claims and counter-claims about what triggered and sustained the communal flare-up that caused unprecedented damage to life and property of people who were already in disadvantaged conditions.”

What USCIRF Would Have Found

The atmosphere in Orissa’s Kandhamal district has remained tense since a spate of attacks began in December 2007 that killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches. The attacks were carried out to avenge an alleged attack on a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.

Violence re-erupted in Kandhamal in August 2008 after the assassination of Saraswati by a Maoist group, though non-Marxist Christians were blamed for it. This time, the violence killed more than 100 people and resulted in the incineration of 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

Had the USCIRF team been able to visit Kandhamal, Christian leaders said, it would have found the situation far from normal even eight months after violence reportedly ended.

According to The Indian Express of May 31, the deployment of five companies of the Central Reserve Police Force, a federal agency, was extended for another month. One company comprises 100 personnel. The federal internal minister had earlier decided to withdraw the force from Kandhamal, but state Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik requested he retain some of the contingent.

The Rev. Ajaya Singh of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese said that around 3,000 victims were still living in government-run relief camps, and some 900 families were in village relief camps. Initially about 24,000 victims were housed in government relief camps. These internally displaced people cannot go back to their villages because of continuing threats from “fundamentalists and criminals,” he added.

Most of the people who carried out attacks remain at large, continue to pressure victims to withdraw complaints they filed against the rioters, and are still threatening harm to Christians who refuse to convert to Hinduism, he complained.

Singh told Compass that a legal aid center run by the Christian Legal Association (CLA) from a rented house in Phulbani, district headquarters of Kandhamal, had been ordered to move out after Hindu nationalist groups pressured the owner of the house.

“For the last one month, lawyers have been staying here to help the witnesses to speak the truth,” he said. “The momentum of the cases was picking up, but now the legal center itself is facing problems.”

Singh also said some witnesses were issued death threats on June 17. The witnesses were told not to go to court or else they would be killed.

“However, a complaint has been lodged at the police station and an affidavit submitted before a judge,” he added.

In addition to the 753 cases filed by police in connection with the August-September 2008 violence, the CLA has filed 63 private complaints, and 70 more will be filed in the coming days.

The Orissa United Forum of Churches (OUFC), a new interdenominational grouping, wrote to Chief Minister Patnaik recently, informing him that an administrative officer of the Raikia area had taken victims from the relief camp to their respective villages on June 6, but the local residents did not allow them even to enter their villages.

The OUFC added that there were around 2,000 Christians who were asked to go back to their villages, but that villagers chased them out. They are now living in marketplaces or on the outskirts of those villages in abject conditions.

According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), extremists on June 2 burned down three homes that were partially destroyed during the August 2008 violence in Sirsapanda area in Kandhamal to prevent victims from returning to their villages.

The Christians were able to identify the attackers, but police advised them against naming them, said the EFI report.

“Christian properties were seized by local villagers, and having the Christians back in the village means giving back the land to their owners,” said the EFI’s Ashish Parida.

A CLA team, which recently visited two camps in Kandhamal, also said that the Christians were consistently ostracized by their neighbors.

Orissa is ruled by a regional party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which was in partnership with the BJP when the violence took place. The BJD broke up with the Hindu right-wing party before the state assembly elections that were held simultaneously with the general elections.

Federal Internal Minister P. Chidambaram was in Kandhamal on Friday (June 26) to assess the law-and-order situation there and admitted police failure.

“What happened on Aug. 23 and thereafter was regrettable and condemnable. Moreover, it was the failure of the police for 30 to 40 days,” he said, according to The Hindu. “Now the situation is returning to normal but we cannot lower our guards.”

Chidambaram also said he wanted displaced Christians to return to their homes, seemingly because it will be difficult for the government to claim that normalcy has returned as long as they remain in relief camps.

“The government will ensure that no one harms you anymore. It is absolutely safe for you to return to your villages,” Chidambaram said at a relief camp in Raikia block, according to The Indian Express. “You have every right to practice your religion, build and pray in churches. You please return to your villages. I want to come back within one month and would like to see you in your homes in your villages.”

Christian leaders said that if the displaced people return home, many more reports of threats, attacks and ostracism are expected.

Why Visas Were Denied

Sources told Compass that both the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) were behind the government’s move to block the USCIRF from entering the country.

Compass persistently tried to contact the spokesperson of the MEA, Vishnu Prakash, without success. The spokesperson of the MHA, Onkar Kedia, was travelling.

According to the June 17 The Times of India, the Indian Embassy in Washington pleaded innocent, saying the visa applications of the USCIRF team had been forwarded to New Delhi, as is the standard practice for all such visits.

Sources in the government in New Delhi denied that the visas were deliberately withheld, saying the time was not “proper” for such a visit, according to the daily.

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

The visas were denied amid diatribes by Hindu right-wing groups against the proposed visit of the U.S. religious freedom panel. An influential Hindu leader, Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati, had called for refusal of entry to the USCIRF team. “We will not allow interference in our internal religious affairs by external bodies,” he said in a press conference in Mumbai on June 12, according to the Press Trust of India. “We see USCIRF as an intrusive mechanism of a foreign government which is interfering with the internal affairs of India.”

Jayendra Saraswati is known to be close to Hindu nationalist groups.

The U.S. branch of the Hindu extremist VHP had also criticized the intended visit of the U.S. Commission, calling it “incomprehensible,” reported The Times of India. “The largest functioning democracy in the world with an independent judiciary, a statutorily constituted Human Rights Commission, an independent press and other supporting organizations would appear to be quite capable of taking care of the religious freedoms and human rights of its citizens,” it said.

Later, on June 22, Ashok Singhal, international president of the VHP, said in a statement that the USCIRF was “a self-appointed committee as an expression of the big brother attitude of the USA to enquire into the status of religious freedom in other countries … This commission is concerned only about the Christians in other countries whenever there is a hue and cry by the church that the Christians are persecuted in such countries. They never bother about the status of religious and racial discriminations meted out to other religionists in the Western countries, including the U.S.”

Rev. Joseph of the Catholic Bishops Conference, however, said it was “preposterous” to construe the USCIRF’s visit as interference in India’s internal matters, “as the organization is recognized the world over as a credible watch-dog of human rights and religious freedom.”

“Everyone knows that the government of the day did/could not effectively check the communal frenzy,” he added. “And the failure of the state has to be investigated not by the officials of the same state themselves, but by someone who can objectively view and make independent judgment on it.”

The USCIRF is expected to release the pending India report in the next few weeks.

“The denial of visas seeks to make opaque an otherwise healthy transparency in India’s human rights discourse,” said the AICC’s Dayal. Added Joseph, “Probably India missed a chance to come clean on its track records on human rights and religious freedom.”

Report from Compass Direct News