Trump praises India's Modi for working to improve religious freedom as rampant persecution rages on

President Donald J. Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi walk together from Hyderabad House to deliver a joint press statement Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, on the lawn of Hyderabad House in New Delhi.
President Donald J. Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi walk together from Hyderabad House to deliver a joint press statement Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, on the lawn of Hyderabad House in New Delhi. | Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

President Trump wrapped up his trip to India this week by praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party on Tuesday, saying that they have worked hard to improve religious freedom conditions in the country.

The president’s two-day trip comes as ongoing riots and clashes between Muslim and Hindu groups over a controversial citizenship amendment that Muslims say is unfair has led to the death of at least 13 people in Delhi in recent days. 

Although Trump did not take a position on the legislation, which has been criticized by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom as a possible “religious test” for citizenship, he did seem to express optimism regarding the condition of religious freedom in India.

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Although Trump has vowed to promote religious freedom worldwide, his administration has not spoken out as boldly on the deteriorating religious freedom conditions in India as it has with other religious freedom violations across the globe, such as those in China. 

Many called on the president to bring the issue up during his meeting with Modi. 

Trump told reporters during a news conference that he and Modi “did talk about religious freedom” for “a long time.” Trump stressed that he “really believes” religious freedom is what Modi wants.

"The prime minister was incredible on what he told me. He wants people to have religious freedom," Trump said at a news conference Tuesday. “He said that, in India, they have worked very hard to have great and open religious freedom. And if you look back and you look at what’s going on, relative to other places especially, they have really worked hard on religious freedom.”

Since Modi and the BJP came to power in 2014, rights groups have warned that Hindu nationalists have acted with relative impunity in attacking and persecuting Christians and other minorities that they view as “non-Indian.”

ADF India reported last year that there have been over 1,000 reported incidents of Christian persecution in India since 2014. ADF India and its partners who facilitate a database of Christian persecution report there to have been over a dozen incidents of Christian persecution in India in February 2020 alone. 

Most recently, the database reported that police personnel raided Christians' homes in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh at around 11 p.m. on Feb. 19. The Christians were reportedly warned that their names would be removed from a ration register and they wouldn’t be allowed to avail government facilities. 

“The Sub-Divisional Magistrate threatened the Christians the very next day to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ,” the database notes

Trump was specifically asked about his stance on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which passed the Indian parliament in December. 

The act amends a 1955 law by providing a path to Indian citizenship for migrants of  Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian religious minorities who fled persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan before 2014. 

However, Muslims who fled those countries were not included on the list.

Trump responded to the reporter’s question about the act by saying he did not “want to discuss that.” 

“I want to leave that to India,” Trump said. "And hopefully, they’re going to make the right decision for the people."

Earlier in February, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to express their concerns with Modi’s policies in India. Their concerns were related to India revoking autonomy from the Muslim-majority region of Jammu and Kashmir and with the citizenship law. 

Senators who signed the joint letter include conservatives such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and liberals like Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin.  

Koshy George, president of the Federation of Indian Christian Organizations in North America, praised Trump for bringing up the issue of religious freedom in his talks with Modi.

“Although we lack any substance from their discussions, we are encouraged to see that the President took the opportunity to include the issue of religious freedom as a priority item at these important bi-lateral discussions with Prime Minister Modi," George said in a statement shared with The Christian Post. 

"We truly hope that the Modi administration would respond positively to the concerns expressed by the President that would be in the best interest of the country.”

Although the best efforts were made to showcase India in a positive light during Trump’s visit, FIACONA Chairman John Prabhudoss said “the world is also watching the ongoing violence as a result of policies enunciated by the current BJP regime.”

“Political tranquility is fundamental to economic progress. And by promoting the policies that drive the country toward majoritarianism and intolerance, the Modi regime may be jeopardizing the prosperity of its ordinary citizens," Prabhudoss said in a statement. 

India is ranked as the 10th-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution on Open Doors USA’s 2020 World Watch List

In an op-ed published by The Christian Post, Open Doors USA CEO David Curry stressed that India wanted Trump to “look the other way” when it comes to religious persecution. 

“India, like the United States, is a vibrant democracy with constitutional protections for the religious freedom of its 1.3 billion citizens,” Curry wrote. “In recent years, those protections have started to look like empty promises. Worse still, Prime Minister Modi’s government appears determined to hide the facts on the ground.”

Curry noted that India is a geopolitical ally of the U.S. that is working to counter China’s dominance in Asia. 

“A new trade deal, which is reportedly on the table for the visit, might provide serious economic benefits to both countries,” Curry wrote. “There’s just one issue: India’s record on religious liberty shows it is not willing to comply with international laws on human rights, making any deal a risky one.”

Open Doors' research reveals at least 1,500 Indian Christians faced some kind of violence or threat do to their religious beliefs between November 2018 and October 2019, while as many as 295 Christians were detained for faith-related reasons.

Tennessee missionary Bryan Nerren was detained on criminal charges in India last fall and has been denied his passport and the ability to return to the U.S. for months. 

“The fact is, India’s record on religious freedom is a ticking time bomb at the heart of the U.S.-India relationship,” Curry stressed. “India’s Muslim community and other religious minorities likely face as much, if not worse, hostility and discrimination. Religious tensions are already spilling over into violence and bloodshed.”

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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