Compassion Int'l Among Thousands Forced Out of India: We Must Speak Up for Religious Liberty

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"I believe that the most essential element of our defense of freedom is our insistence on speaking out for the cause of religious liberty. I would like to see this country rededicate itself wholeheartedly to this cause … We are our brothers' keepers, all of us." — President Ronald Reagan

If you've seen the Oscar-winning movie "Slumdog Millionaire," then you've gotten a glimpse of the poverty that exists in India. Mumbai is home to one of the largest slums in the world with a million residents eking out an existence in poor sanitary conditions and extremely crowded confines.

Religious and humanitarian organizations from around the world spend their time and money to help Indian citizens through programs and donations. Christians across the U.S. take time from school or work every year to travel to India, not for a five star vacation, but to be the hands and feet of Jesus. They are there for an eternal mission of compassion and charity, living out the Gospel. They help minister to the more than 200 million people in India — roughly a quarter of the population — who live below the poverty line.

It was the haunting images of poverty — families living on the street, children abandoned by their widowed mothers and people so starved for food that their ribs protruded — that drew Compassion International to India in the 1960s. The organization started by helping 400 children and eventually took 145,000 children under its wing. Compassion International provided food, clean water and educational opportunities to poverty's most vulnerable victims.

Unfortunately for those children, the Indian government is using a broad provision of law to force organizations such as Compassion International out of India. After nearly 50 years, this humanitarian aid organization has been forced to leave. When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the United States several weeks ago, I asked President Trump to bring up this critical issue. The United States and India have a long-standing relationship and I, along with several of my colleagues, encouraged the president to reiterate the importance of religious liberty in India.

The Indian government, under Modi's leadership, has made it difficult — and, in Compassion International's case, impossible — for religious and humanitarian organizations to get funding for their charitable operations in India. These are organizations that are trying to meet the very basic needs of the impoverished. They are providing food and health care to those who would otherwise starve and suffer.

These organizations cannot transfer funds into India for their operations without the government's permission. That permission is becoming less and less forthcoming. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are caught in a bottleneck, according to The New York Times.

Compassion International isn't alone in encountering this problem. According to both Reuters and The New York Times, more than 11,000 nongovernmental organizations have had their licenses to receive overseas donations canceled or suspended since 2014. This has caused a negative impact that has reverberated across India in areas ranging from health care to environmental causes.

Missionary outreach, a core component of many denominations in the U.S. for more than a century, has come under attack in India as well. Southern Baptist Convention missionaries have faced increased pressure and scrutiny from Indian authorities when trying to enter the country and during their work as well.

It was a Virginia woman born before the Civil War who laid the foundation for a fundraising drive that has raised more than $1 billion for missionary work within the Southern Baptist Convention. Lottie Moon literally lost her life on the mission field when she sacrificed her own food and money to help famine victims in Asia. Just as we celebrate the birth of Christ, we also celebrate her every year at Christmas with the annual Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for Missions.

Lottie embodied the Christian spirit that burns in all of us. It is this very spirit that is under attack.

India is the world's largest democracy. It is deeply saddening that after so many years of democracy, it continues to oppress religious freedom. Using a provision of law to cut off funding for charitable organizations that provide for Indian citizens makes no sense. In particular, cutting off religious organizations is oppressive and needs to change.

The ability to practice your beliefs is a fundamental human right. We cannot allow religious persecution and oppression to prosper. We must champion the cause of religious freedom by making it a top foreign policy priority. I hope the Trump Administration will join me in calling for religious freedom around the world.

John Kennedy (R-La.) was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016. He has built a distinguished career as a conservative champion for the people of Louisiana and a dedicated watchdog of taxpayer money. Kennedy serves on the Appropriations, Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs, Budget, Judiciary and Small Business & Entrepreneurship committees in the U.S. Senate. He has been an adjunct professor at LSU Law School and a volunteer substitute teacher for public schools. He resides in Madisonville, Louisiana, with his wife Becky and their son, Preston. They are founding members of the North Cross United Methodist Church.