“The reality speaks for itself. The government response could have been more frank and responsible,” Methodist Bishop Taranath Sagar, president of the National Council of Churches in India told Ecumenical News International on August 25.
Bishop Sagar, who heads the 30-member national council made up of Protestant and Orthodox churches, described as “regrettable” the dismissal by India’s foreign ministry of the decision by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. The U.S. advisory body decided to place India on its “watch list” of nations where freedom of religion is in question.
The U.S. commission in its report released in mid-August said its decision was based on a failure “to take steps to ensure rights of religious minorities in several states” of India.
Vishnu Prakash, spokesperson for India’s external affairs ministry, in turn dismissed the U.S. commission’s decision as “regrettable”. Further, Prakash asserted, “India, a country of 1.1 billion people, is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society … . Aberrations, if any, are dealt with promptly within our legal framework under the watchful eye of an independent judiciary and a vigilant media.”
Prakash stated, “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.”
Still, Bishop Sagar said it was not enough for the Indian government to refer to constitutional provisions, “without bothering to enforce these guarantees.” “What happened in Orissa and here in Karnataka can never be justified and raises questions on freedom of religion,” noted the bishop.
Sagar is based in Bangalore, the capital of the southern Karnataka state, which recorded many attacks on Christian targets over the past year.
Separately, in eastern Orissa state, more than 50,000 Christians were left homeless in August 2008 following the murder of Swami Lakshmanananda
Saraswati in the Kandhamal district where the slain Hindu monk had been leading a vociferous campaign against conversions to Christianity. Though Maoist rebels claimed responsibility for the killing, Hindu extremists branded it a “Christian conspiracy” and targeted Christians in the area.
In ensuing violence more than 90 Christians were killed, more than 5,000 Christian houses, and 250 churches and Christian institutions were looted and torched. Subsequent reports found police did little to curb the anti-Christian violence.
John Dayal, general secretary of the All India Christian Council, in a statement had welcomed the decision of the U.S. commission. “India’s record on the persecution of minorities and the violation of religious freedom since 1969 has been a matter of shame for the nation,” he stated.
At the same time, an activist group known as the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue in a statement labeled as traitors those hailing the U.S group’s move.