U.S. religious rights panel cites culture of impunity at authorities allowing atrocities.
NEW DELHI, August 18 (Compass Direct News) – Ahead of one-year remembrances of massive anti-Christian violence in the eastern state of Orissa, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has put India on its “Watch List” for the country’s violations of religious freedom, evoking strong reactions from the Indian government.
USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo said in a statement on Wednesday (Aug. 12) that it was “extremely disappointing” that India “has done so little to protect and bring justice to its religious minorities under siege.”
The U.S. panel’s decision was “regrettable,” a spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Vishnu Prakash, said in a statement on Thursday (Aug. 13), after the USCIRF put India on the list due to a “disturbing increase” in violence on minorities and a growing culture of impunity in the country.
Violence erupted in Kandhamal district of the eastern state of Orissa in August-September 2008, killing more than 100 people and burning 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to rights groups such as the All India Christian Council (AICC), the Global Council of India Christians (GCIC) and the Christian Legal Association (CLA).
“India’s democratic institutions charged with upholding the rule of law, most notably state and central judiciaries and police, have emerged as unwilling or unable to seek redress for victims of the violence,” Leo said. “More must be done to ensure future violence does not occur and that perpetrators are held accountable.”
Disagreeing with the USCIRF report, the foreign ministry’s Prakash said India is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. “The Constitution of India guarantees freedom of religion and equality of opportunity to all its citizens, who live and work together in peace and harmony,” he said.
Christians were shocked by the foreign ministry spokesman’s claim that “aberrations, if any, are dealt with promptly within our legal framework, under the watchful eye of an independent judiciary and a vigilant media.”
Attorney Robin Ratnakar David, president of the CLA, told Compass that one year after the violence only six people have been convicted in just two cases of rioting, while several suspects have been acquitted in four such cases despite the formation of fast-track courts.
Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the AICC, pointed out that the more than 50,000 people who fled to forests or took shelter in refugee camps have not returned home out of fear of Hindu nationalist extremists who demand they either convert to Hinduism or leave their villages.
He said there also had been several “pogroms against Muslims, often sponsored or condoned by the state.”
In 2002, India’s worst-ever anti-Muslim violence occurred in the western state of Gujarat. A compartment of a train, the Sabarmati Express, caught fire – or was set on fire (as claimed by Hindu extremists) – near the Godhra city railway station on Feb. 27. In the fire, 58 Hindu passengers, mainly supporters of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), were killed. The VHP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed it was an attack by Islamic terrorists; the ensuing violence killed more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.
Following the anti-Muslim violence, the USCIRF recommended that India be designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC), its list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. India was removed from the CPC list in 2005.
Designation on the Watch List means a country requires “close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the government,” according to USCIRF. The other countries on USCIRF’s Watch List are Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, the Russian Federation, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Venezuela.
CLA attorney David said the August-September 2008 violence in Kandhamal could have been prevented had the administration brought to justice those responsible for previous mayhem in December 2007. The December 2007 violence in Kandhamal killed at least four Christians, burned as many as 730 houses and 95 churches and rendered thousands homeless.
The attacks were launched under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on a VHP leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. It was the assassination of Saraswati by Maoists (extreme Marxists) on Aug. 23, 2008 that sparked the second spate of violence in Kandhamal, as Hindu nationalists blamed non-Marxist, local Christians for it.
Dayal said the USCIRF’s latest conclusions could have been avoided if more action had been taken against the perpetrators of last year’s violence.
“The USCRIF action would not have been possible, and India would have been able to rebuff the U.S. scrutiny more effectively, if several thousand Christians were still not in refugee camps, if the killers were still not roaming scot-free and if witnesses, including widows, were not being coerced,” he said.
Shashi Tharoor, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, told a private news channel that India did not need approbation from outside its borders.
“As far as we are concerned, we are essentially indifferent to how others view the situation,” he said. “In democracy, what matters to us is how we deal with our own internal issues. I don’t think we need any certificates from outside.”
He dismissed the report as meddling in internal affairs even though between June 2002 and February 2007 Tharoor served as under-secretary general for communications and public information for the United Nations, a body representative of international accountability in human rights.
In its annual report, India’s home (interior) ministry had acknowledged that the incidence of communal violence was high. It noted that in 2008, as many as 943 communal incidents (mainly against Muslims and Christians) took place in which 167 persons were killed and 2,354 persons were injured. The figures were up from those of 2007, when there were 761 incidents in which 99 persons were killed and 2,227 persons were injured.
Justifying its decision, the USCIRF report stated that several incidents of communal violence have occurred in various parts of the country resulting in many deaths and mass displacements, particularly of members of the Christian and Muslim minorities, “including major incidents against Christian communities within the 2008-2009 reporting period.”
“Because the government’s response at the state and local levels has been found to be largely inadequate and the national government has failed to take effective measures to ensure the rights of religious minorities in several states, the Commission decided to place India on its Watch List.”
The USCIRF had 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 a visit to the country in June. A USCIRF team planned to visit India to speak to the government and others concerning the situation in Kandhamal and Gujarat on June 12, but the Indian embassy in Washington, D.C. did not provide visas in time.
“USCIRF’s India chapter was released this week to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of the anti-Christian violence in Orissa,” Leo pointed out in last week’s statement.
The AICC’s Dayal seemed pessimistic about a change in the government’s attitude.
“Unfortunately, nothing really impacts the government of India or the government of Indian states,” he said. “The state, and our social conscience, seems Teflon-coated. The patriotic media and political sector dismiss international scrutiny as interference in the internal affairs of India, and a beaten-into-submission section of the leadership of religious minorities assumes silence to be the best form of security and safety.”
Dr. Sajan George, the national convenor of the GCIC, said the report showed that India had become a “super violator” of human rights. The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, said the U.S. panel’s report did not augur well with India’s claim to find a respectable place within the community of nations.
“India as an emerging economic power in the world should also endeavor to better its records of protecting human rights, particularly when it comes to religious freedom of its citizens,” Joseph said.
Joseph told Compass the USCIRF report was “a clear indication of the growing concern of the international community with India’s repeated failure to take decisive and corrective measures to contain religious intolerance.”
Christian leaders generally lauded the report, with Dayal saying, “India’s record on the persecution of minorities and the violation of religious freedom has been a matter of international shame for the nation.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Backlash erupts against Christian opponents of proposed constitution.
QUITO, Ecuador, August 12 (Compass Direct News) – Catholic authorities report death threats and several acts of vandalism of church property in response to church opposition to several articles in Ecuador’s proposed new constitution.
In the port city of Guayaquil, a group of people were reported to have entered a chapel, grabbed the eucharistic host, tore it apart, spat on it and stepped on it.
That vandalism was reportedly the third that has occurred in recent weeks as frustrated supporters of ruling socialist party Alianza PAIS lash out at the Catholic Church for criticizing their newly-proposed constitution. Similar desecrations were reported in recent weeks at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Nobol and the Church of the Holy Supper in Guayaquil.
Archbishop Antonio Arregui Yarza of Guayaquil has received numerous death threats, as has pro-life leader Amparo Medina, who recently received a dead rat inside of a shoebox with a note attached that read “death to pro-lifers.” In addition, the president of the Never Impunity Movement (Movimiento Impunidad Jamás) has called for the archbishop’s arrest and “preventative imprisonment” because of the church’s opposition to the constitution.
María Morán Bajaña, the movement’s president, said that the church’s campaign was a step back in time and was an improper role for church leadership.
The Ecuadorian Bishops’ Conference said that the church would not officially campaign against the document but would alert the Ecuadorian people to several provisions that it called “non-negotiable.”
In particular, church officials have said that they disagreed with provisions that could allow for abortions and homosexual unions as well as the concentration of power in the president’s hands.
The national assembly that debated the new document’s 444 articles had wrestled with those topics for weeks, weighing possible outcomes if the church decided to openly oppose it and call for a “no” vote in the referendum. Pro-life groups had demonstrated in front of the assembly hall as the issue was debated.
The church chose, however, not to officially campaign against the constitution but to raise its concern about some of the articles, as well as call for education in churches about the controversial issues. Nearly 90 percent of Ecuadorians consider themselves Roman Catholic.
In “themes such as abortion, the family, education and religious liberty, the bishops of Ecuador decided to discuss those points in the light of pronouncements by Pope Benedict XVI,” said Archbishop Arregui, president of the Ecuadorian Bishops’ Conference.
Arregui criticized the draft document, saying the language on abortion is ambiguous. He said that the new constitution did not clearly define life as beginning at conception nor denote family as consisting of a man and a woman, but rather allowed for non-traditional family types.
“A union between homosexuals is not a family,” Arregui argued.
Protestant leaders have also lined up in opposition to some of the document’s provisions.
Pastors Francisco Loor and Nelson Zavala have charged that at least 200 of the constitution’s articles are “immoral.” They also challenged President Rafael Correa’s description of church opposition as antiquated.
Government officials, including Correa, have sharply criticized church leaders for their position and accused unnamed priests of disseminating erroneous information in sermons about the documents.
“This is a constitution that defends life,” Correa said. “The text is clear. The rest is simply ignorance or bad faith to keep on playing the games of those groups who want power.”
Augusto Barrera, coordinator between the Executive and the Constituent Assembly, said, “It is not true that the constitution favors abortion. It undoubtedly and clearly protects life and establishes protection and care from the very beginning, that is, conception.”
He also accused the church of being linked to opposition organizations that opposed Correa and his friendship with leftist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
Correa also has questioned the church’s position concerning religious liberty in the document.
“The new constitution recognizes a person’s right to practice, keep, change or profess his religion in public or in private and to share it with others,” he said.
Arregui said the church is concerned about freedom of religion and the right of the church to operate freely.
“We will not enter into a discussion with the president nor limit our right of free expression, including the expression of our religious beliefs,” he said. “We will work to influence the Christian conscience about these issues. Each citizen is free to make his own conclusions about how they ought to vote.”
In addition, the mention of an indigenous deity, Paccha Mama, in the proposed constitution has contributed to the rift between Ecuador’s president and Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders.
“We are worried that this invocation of an Incan deity, the Paccha Mama [Mother Earth], a divine being, among the indigenous groups is a worship of Paccha Mama,” said Pastor Loor, who leads an Assemblies of God church in the port city of Guayaquil.
“To include it in the constitution is to return to a time hundreds of years ago when fire and air were worshipped.”
In addition, Pastor Loor charged that the inclusion of Paccha Mama contradicted the new document’s reported secular nature.
The new constitution, which was approved by an elected assembly in late July and will be voted on in a national referendum on September 28, notes in its preface, “We, the sovereign people of Ecuador, celebrate nature, the Paccha Mama, that we are a part of and that is a vital part of our existence.” The document’s chapter on the rights of nature says, “The existence of nature, or Paccha Mama, where we reproduce life, has the right to be respected.”
Carlos Pilaminga, one of the representatives to the constitutional assembly of the indigenous political party Pachakutik, charged that Protestants and Roman Catholics do not understand the “indigenous vision of the cosmos.” Paccha Mama, he said, is not a deity but “is an eternal space where we live and of which we are a part. Pachakamak is our creator, what the Catholics call God and the evangelicals [Protestants] call Jehovah.”
“Our evangelical brothers do not comprehend our religiosity and spirituality,” Pilaminga added.
The constitution has been controversial in Ecuador and internationally because it is seen as consolidating the president’s power over various branches of government, including the banking system and the courts. The document also allows Correa to run for additional terms.
Recent polls have indicated that the constitution is growing in favor but still has not gained enough support to be approved. Ratification would need 50 percent-plus-one vote of those participating in the referendum.
Report from Compass Direct News