U.S. Lawmakers Urge India to Bring Justice to Christians

A group of U.S. lawmakers have written to the Chief Minister of India's eastern state of Orissa, calling for action against those who have carried out attacks against Christians.

"Such attacks on the fundamental freedom of religion threaten not only India's reputation for religious diversity, but also the very stability of India's secular democracy," the 21 lawmakers, led by Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), state in the letter addressed to Naveen Patnaik.

Just over a dozen people have been convicted so far for the anti-Christian violence that erupted last year and many remain at large.

In August 2008, Hindu extremists carried out the worst religious persecution in India's 60 years of democracy. At least 120 people were murdered, 250 churches destroyed and over 50,000 individuals displaced. Thousands remain in refugee camps, fearing more attacks if they return home.

"Given the recent experience with religiously inspired terrorism, we are concerned that if Hindu extremists can act with impunity toward religious minorities in India, these extremists and their ideologies will begin to affect international security as well," states the letter, released Friday, according to Agence France-Presse.

The anti-Christian riots in the communally-sensitive Kandhamal district began after a Hindu leader was assassinated. Hindu nationalists accused Christians of orchestrating the murder, but Maoist rebels had publicly claimed responsibility for the swami's death while Christians vehemently denied any involvement in the incident.

The state government of Orissa has taken some steps to promote peace and unity in the region and assured the Christians of their protection. But out of more than 750 cases filed by Christians against Hindu attackers, only 17 people have been convicted to various terms of imprisonment. Moreover, the perpetrators continue to intimidate the small Christian community.

In the letter to Patnaik, lawmakers acknowledge the positive steps of reform taken by the government of Orissa. But they also recognize religious liberty as a basic human right and ask specific questions regarding the government's plans to bring justice to Christians.

The letter comes after a U.S. religious freedom panel placed the predominantly Hindu country under its watch list. Criticizing the Indian government for its failure to protect the rights of religious minorities, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in August added India to its annual list of countries where religious freedom conditions require close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments.

USCIRF recommended that the Obama administration call on political parties and religious or social organizations in India to publicly denounce violence against and harassment of religious minorities, women, and low-caste members, and to acknowledge that such violence constitutes a crime under Indian law.