On the surface, President Trump appears committed fully to the idea of Religious Freedom. He has been very vocal about the issue on many forums that include the United Nations. To his credit, he has appointed Mr. Sam Brownback, a conservative Catholic, to the position at the State Department as the Ambassador of Religious freedom. Evangelical leaders in the U.S. are some of the most ardent supporters of this President anywhere because of his clear commitment to the cause. To the delight of his Evangelical base, he has not only spoken against the ‘Johnson Amendment’ that prohibits Clergy from commenting on politics from the pulpit but also issued an Executive order that lessens its enforcement power and limits its bureaucratic oversight.
However, a different picture emerges if one delves deeply into the inner workings of this President concerning this very issue. As someone who has participated in the Religious Freedom Conference in Washington, D.C., I witnessed the selective application of this issue firsthand that suits his political purposes. There were many speakers from countries like China and Iran who detailed the suppression of religious freedom in those countries and the persecution of the faithful by the authorities. However, India rather conspicuously was missing any representation at the conference.
The weaponization of religion by the current Administration – so they can preserve their power -has reached a fever pitch in India, where minorities are being lynched for their dietary habits and churches are being torched by the Hindutva radicals. When questioned about this absence, an official of the State Department could only respond by saying that India was invited but declined to participate. It is hard to believe that speakers from authoritarian regimes of China and Iran somehow found their way to the conference, but Indian representatives willing to speak on the matter could not be found! Upon questioning, Mr. Brownback feigned his ignorance in this regard and said someone from India should have been present. However, according to several sources, White House appears to have given special instructions to the State Department not to bring the current BJP government’s shabby record on religious freedom to the table.
Now that President Trump is on the way to India to meet with Prime Minister Modi, whom he considers his strategic partner, it is important to examine how the wellbeing of the minority Christians in India, as well as the interests of American Christian leadership, may have been undermined by this Administration for either political expediency or plain business interests.
Firstly, let us take the case of ‘Compassion International,’ a Christian Charitable organization in the U.S. that has done incredible work around the World, including India, by clothing, feeding, and educating impoverished children by allowing their upward mobility. The Modi Government has decided to throw out the organization while knowing fully well that they are jeopardizing the futures of 145000 poor children only because the organization is considered ‘Christian.’ If the country is so opposed to foreign funding, why then the Hindu organizations like ‘Eka Vidyalaya,’ a Sangh Parivar affiliated outfit in the U.S. continue to collect funds from all Americans including Christians?
To add insult to injury, Mr. S. Jaishankar, the diplomat, turned politician who is the current Minister of External Affairs, is said to have invited the lead attorney for the organization and gave him a tongue-lashing at his office lambasting the organization and accusing its leadership of engaging in proselytizing. The organization had vehemently denied these charges often raised by anti-minority zealots who could care less about the lives of the lower caste and poor folks around them. Moreover, it is genuinely disappointing to see a diplomat who had such a rich multi-cultural global experience, including being Ambassador to the United States, to behave with such arrogance and lack of empathy.
Another arena where American Christian leadership is unfairly treated by India is in the issuance of visas to those who aspire to visit their fellow Christians to attend a conference or a convention. In a shocking display of bad faith, only a few months ago, nine leaders from the New York Council of Christian churches headed by Rev. Peter Cook, who traveled to India with valid visas were denied entry at the Chennai airport. And after subjugating them to a grueling 12-hour questioning, they were deported back to the United States. ‘The team was there to meet some people and learn,’ said Mr. Cook, who is also the Executive Director of the New York State Council of Churches. They were even denied the basic courtesy of making a phone call to their would-be hosts. According to one of the team members, an immigration official went as far as to pronounce, ‘we don’t want Christians to come here’!
Visas are indeed considered a privilege, not a right; however, protocol and courtesy call for reciprocity. Hindu religious leaders from India appear to have unlimited access to visit or serve their fellow faithful in this country. The number of religious visas issued to Hindu temples and other religious institutions by the U.S. stand at an all-time high. However, an American Christian leader does not even have an option to apply for a visa on such a ground. If one dares to take a tourist visa and attend any of the church meetings, he/she risks not only being deported but will be banned from an entry back to India for their lifetime.
It is not only the American Christian leadership that is put under the grind but also Indians who have immigrated to this country and acquired U.S. Citizenship. Many of them took the opportunity to avail themselves of the Overseas Citizenship (OCI) card, believing that it would give them privileges on par with Indian citizens except for voting or owning agricultural lands. However, as Dr. Christo Philip from Houston found out, one of his frequent trips to India turned out to be a nightmare. He was stopped at the airport and deported back to Spain, where the flight originated, ending up in prison for a day and losing his OCI status. He was falsely accused of evangelizing though, as a medical doctor, his primary interest was to serve the needy people over their health concerns at some of the remotest parts of India. Although the Delhi high court has finally restored his OCI status, the Judge involved may have paid a higher price and said to have been reassigned since then.
The current OCI application contains obvious conditions preventing ‘Missionary work’ and ‘Journalism’ and combined with the provision in the newly passed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) empowering the bureaucracy to cancel OCI card for any ‘violation of the law’ has sent shivers down the spine in the Indian Christian leadership in America. Mere participation of religious activity while visiting India could now be construed as a violation of the OCI agreement, and there are plenty folks in the RSS cadre and in the bureaucracy who are more than willing to collude in making such a participation a violation of the law that may also be beyond any judicial review. The provision of ‘journalism’ may shield the Government from any form of criticism from OCI cardholders who may want to pen their experiences in any of the media outlets.
Let me also quote from a letter recently sent by a multi-faith group to President Trump highlighting the plight of an American Pastor named Bryan Nerren that shows Religious persecution is not restricted to Indian citizens only. “In October 2019, police arrested U.S. pastor Bryan Nerren in Bagdogra airport in India. The police arrested him on the grounds of failing to declare funds, this followed after the officers in New Delhi interrogated him, asking him if he was Christian and if the money was for Christians or Hindus, they cleared him at the airport in New Delhi only to have him arrested in Bagdogra. The pastor was compliant and said he would fill out the customs form but was instead arrested. Authorities confiscated the pastor’s funds and passport, and while he has now been released, he is still waiting to receive his passport. Senator Alexander and Senator Blackburn are working on his case. The boldness of the authorities’ arrest and discrimination of a U.S. national because of his faith – shows that actors of religious persecution in India, afforded government impunity, further embolden state and non-state extremists to continue their discriminatory and abusive actions towards non-Hindus”.
The ill-treatment of the Christian leadership by the officials is not just limited to American Christians but includes leaders from other countries as well. Considering that India, which has 30 million of its citizens living abroad and more at home are looking for opportunities around the World, what the Modi government has done to a Spanish Nun who lived in India for five decades and serving the poor is deeply shameful. Sister Enedina, 86 years old, a member of the Daughters of Charity, was denied the renewal of her visa and was told by the Government that she had ten days to leave the country. She flew August 20 from New Delhi to Spain. It should also be noted that the Modi administration has so far not extended an invitation to Pope Francis, who is eager for such a visit, despite appeals from various Christian and secular quarters.
In many of the incidents highlighted above, so far, Trump Administration appears to have taken a wait and see attitude in dealing with the Modi Administration. In light of President’s remarks at the United Nations General Assembly that it is necessary to “increase the prosecution and punishment of crimes against religious communities”, the world is waiting to see whether he will raise the issue privately with Modi during the state visit, make a public statement in support of constitutional rights similar to Obama, or remain silent. Then we will have a much clearer idea whether religious freedom is merely a political football or a sincere goal of the Trump Administration.
(Writer is a former Chief Technology Officer of the United Nations)