U.S. Religious Freedom Panel Adds India to Watch List

The U.S. government watchdog on religious freedom has placed India on its watch list for frequent outbreaks of violence against minorities, especially Christians.

In its 2009 report on India, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Wednesday said the South Asian country earned the watch list designation due to a "disturbing increase" in communal violence and the government's largely inadequate response.

The report sharply criticizes the Indian government for its failure to protect the rights of religious minorities.

"It is extremely disappointing that India, which has a multitude of religious communities, has done so little to protect and bring justice to its religious minorities under siege," said USCIRF chair Leonard Leo. "USCIRF's India chapter was released this week to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of the anti-Christian violence in Orissa."

Last year in the eastern state of Orissa, the killing of Hindu fundamentalist leader Swami Saraswati in Kandhamal district sparked a prolonged and destructive campaign against Christians. Although Maoist rebels claimed responsibility for the murder, Hindu militants blamed the Christian community and attacked churches and individuals.

"These attacks largely were carried out by individuals associated with Hindu nationalist groups, and resulted in at least 40 deaths and the destruction of hundreds of homes and dozens of churches," the USCIRF report states. "Tens of thousands were displaced and today many still remain in refugee camps, afraid to return home."

The panel also references the 2002 violence in western Gujarat state where hundreds of people, mainly Muslims, were killed by Hindu mobs. The state government was accused of doing little to stop the religious violence.

"In both Orissa and Gujarat, court convictions have been infrequent, perpetrators rarely brought to justice and thousands of people remain displaced," USCIRF states.

USCIRF, an independent, bipartisan federal government commission, releases its annual report on religious freedom each May. This year, however, the India chapter was delayed because of a planned trip to India in June. A USCIRF delegation had planned to meet with officials, religious leaders and civil society activists to discuss religious freedom conditions but was denied visas for entry.

In Wednesday's report, USCIRF also notes the country's deficiencies in investigating and prosecuting cases which it said had resulted in a culture of impunity that gives members of vulnerable minority communities few assurances of safety and little hope of perpetrator accountability.

"India's democratic institutions charged with upholding the rule of law, most notably state and central judiciaries and police, have emerged as unwilling or unable to seek redress for victims of the violence. More must be done to ensure future violence does not occur and that perpetrators are held accountable," said Leo.

The report recommends that the Obama Administration urge the government of India to take new measures to promote communal harmony, protect religious minorities, and prevent communal violence.

To achieve this, it asks the U.S. President to 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.

Other countries listed on the panel's watch list are Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, the Russian Federation, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Venezuela. The designated countries require "close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the government."

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