India: US Commission on Religious Freedom welcomed

Christians in India are welcoming the first visit of the Commission on International Religious Freedom to India. There remains concern among Christians about Hindu nationalist thuggery.

The Church in India has welcomed a planned first visit to the country by the U.S. government's Commission on International Religious Freedom, saying it would help build sectarian peace in the country. Until now the Indian government has barred official visits by commission members, saying their activities would amount to interference in internal affairs.

The Church sees the planned visit as a chance to heal wounds and bridge gaps between religions in a country that has suffered several bouts of sectarian violence since independence in 1947.

"Any move to bring about greater understanding and a sense of justice among religions and communities is welcome," commented Archbishop Stanislaus Fernandes of Gandhinagar, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India. The Jesuit prelate is based in the capital of Gujarat state.

Hindu-Muslim riots there in 2002 left 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead amid claims the Hindu rioters had the tacit support of the western Indian state's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people's party). The BJP, widely seen as the political wing of radical Hindu nationalist groups, was also part of a coalition government in Orissa in August 2008, when Hindu extremists in that eastern state launched a four-month attack on Christians.

That violence killed at least 60 people and displaced around 50,000. The great majority of victims were Christians, who comprise only 2.1 percent of Orissa's 31 million people.

The religious freedom commission studies and publishes reports on abuses of religious freedom, especially in "countries of particular of interest" to the U.S. administration because of "ongoing violations of religious freedom," according to its website.

Archbishop Fernandes told UCA News on May 5 that a visit by the commission, a statutory body of the U.S. government, "should not be seen as interference in the affairs of India." On the other hand, "the commission should not also upset our systems," he added.

India is not on the list of 12 "countries of particular interest," but the commission withheld a report on the country this year when it released its findings on other nations on May 1 in Washington.

It said it would release the report after a visit to India, "which will give us the opportunity to gain perspective on the government's response to communal violence that occurred in Orissa, Gujarat and elsewhere."

Montfort Brother Thomas Thanickal, who works among Christian riot victims in Orissa, told UCA News the commission's visit would help "confirm what we have been saying."

Some in the Church say the state has aided Hindu radicals by inaction, failure and delays in protecting the life and property of Christians.

"I'm not sure what more the commission's visit could achieve, but it surely will help make its report authentic," the brother said.

Father Babu Joseph, the bishops' conference spokesperson, says the Church the visit will "send the right message that India cannot stand isolated" from other nations in global concerns such as of religious freedom and peace.

Media reports suggest the federal Congress-led government might have given the visit the go-ahead to earn political capital by embarrassing the BJP state governments in Gujarat and Orissa.

"There could be political interests. But nevertheless it will send a clear message to the international community that India is committed to protect the interest of minority religions," Father Joseph stated.

Archbishop Fernandes noted that Indian courts and governments are "moving forward" to book the culprits of violence and "bring justice to the victims."

The visit of the commission "should not be seen as a weakness of our legal system and administrative capacities," the prelate said.

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