05/08/2006, 00.00
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US Commission: India's religious freedom "to be closely monitored"

by Nirmala Carvalho

The country "is not on the list of countries of particular concern" but the situation there "is being controlled so it will not deteriorate". The Church "appreciates the warning" and urges "self-monitoring, which the Indian people are capable of".

Delhi (AsiaNews) – The US Commission on International Religious Freedom is "closely monitoring" religious freedoms in India although the country is not on the list of "countries of particular concern" like China and Saudi Arabia. The Indian Church has "favourably welcomed this assessment" but adds it is "very concerned about the situation of religious freedom".

In a report to the US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, presented on 3 May, the Commission emphasized that the country "should be closely watched" because despite the defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, India's largest political party with fundamentalist, nationalist leanings) in the 2004 general election, "concerns about religious freedom in India remain". The committee members said: "We are particularly concerned that attacks on Christians persist - in some areas at alarmingly high levels - without adequate prosecution."

Mgr Oswald Gracias, chairman of the Indian Bishops' Conference, told AsiaNews: "The Indian Church is definitely concerned about the situation. The decision of the US Commission should give us motivation to mobilize public opinion and alert the government of any atrocities against the Christians in our country."

"It is not my primary concern that we are not listed on the 'countries of particular concern'. I would be happy if we were able to monitor ourselves and as Indians, make an impact on our own government. It is important for our nation and for our democratic principles to ensure religious freedom."

The recommendations to Rice add: "The state of Rajasthan is particularly worrying as it has been the recent scene of serious attacks on Christian individuals and institutions carried out by members of extremist groups espousing Hindu nationalism". The bishop said: "The situation in Rajasthan is causing concern and to an extent alarming. We need to be watchful, because the terms of the Anti-Conversion bill are harsh but at the same time vague, to allow nationalists more space. I will be satisfied if we can impact a change in our own government and society."

Fr Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit priest and widely renowned human rights activist, said: "The situation should be closely monitored because of religious fundamentalism that continues to vitiate the atmosphere in several parts of India in the name of nationalism."  The situation in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, even parts of Maharashtra and definitely in Gujarat, "continues to be rather tense on the religious front, with several attacks on minorities and their establishments during the last few months." 

The Jesuit added: "It is high time that Rice calls for accountability from the government of India on the basis of the Commission's recommendations and for its part, the government should improve freedom of religion in various States, especially Gujarat."

For John Dayal, human rights activist and chairman of the All India Catholic Union: "The government as well as the people of India should realise what tricks the Bharatiya Janata party and its militant wings of the Sangh Parivar are playing with the federal character of India. In violation of constitutional directives, in opposition to the policies of the central government, and in complete disregard of the secular character and spiritual heritage of the nation, this party has sought to unite majorities and victimize minorities in states where it is in power.

"The centre of the nation must restore the full powers of the constitution and stop such criminals, who repeatedly bring the country to the verge of communal violence. The people of India must make it clear that they will not tolerate any violations of the heritage of peace and secularism in India. The international community also has an obligation, because an unstable India will not do anyone any good."

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