(Morning Star News) – The worst anti-Christian pogrom of the 21st century has come not from Islamic extremists but from Hindu nationalists in India, an expert told a hearing in which U.S. President Barack Obama was challenged to quickly fill a key religious freedom post.
John L. Allen, Jr., author of “The Global War on Christians,” today told the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations that one reason Christians are increasingly persecuted is that Christianity is expanding in countries where religious freedom is lacking. Some states in India are prime examples. While most estimates of deaths from the 2008 attacks in India’s Orissa (now Odisha) state are around 100, Allen said the figure could be as high as 500.
“India’s northeastern state of Orissa was the scene of the most violent anti-Christian pogrom of the early 21st century,” he said. “In 2008, a series of riots ended with as many as 500 Christians killed, many hacked to death by machete-wielding Hindu radicals, and thousands more injured and at least 50,000 left homeless.”
Tehmina Arora, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom-India (ADF-India), told the subcommittee that the impunity that violent mobs enjoy is an important factor in anti-Christian persecution in India.
“Police resist filing criminal complaints and have on several instances allegedly threatened to falsely incriminate victims in some cases,” she said. “The hostility of the state machinery towards the victims of communal and targeted violence was most evident in the aftermath of the violence in Orissa. The National People’s Tribunal on Kandhamal, a private inquiry titled ‘Waiting for Justice’ clearly outlined the apathy of the state administration towards the victims and their families. The report also highlighted the fear faced by victims and survivors as well as the refusal of police to register complaints.”
In many cases, only orders from the High Court in Orissa prompted police to file First Information Reports against assailants, Arora said. In one case, a Christian whose house was burned down filed a FIR but no case was registered against the named suspects.
“I was attacked during the 2008 riot and my house was burnt,” Gajana Digal told ADF-India. “I lodged an FIR in the local police station, Tikabali, which was not registered against the accused persons … I have repeatedly sought help from the local police station for my protection but no action was taken in spite of my petition dated 19 May 2010 against the criminals with specific names like Dahia Mallick, Sudhira Pradhan, Ajiban Mallick, Mantu Gauda and Biranchi Behera. My petition was not registered and no action was taken against the accused persons.”
As in other states, the government of Orissa has failed to effectively prosecute those accused of carrying out violent attacks against the Christian community, Arora said. Though the Orissa government claims it took strict action against the accused, statistics show that of 827 FIRs filed, charges were brought in only 512. Just 75 cases ended in convictions, with only 477 people convicted, primarily for smaller or “petty” offences such as burning of houses and damaging property, she said.
“Only nine people have been convicted for their role in killing of the Christians,” Arora told the subcommittee. “Human right activists claim that as many as 84,000 people were accused by the victims in the over 2,500 complaints sent to the police. The acquittals have been due to shoddy investigation and lack of judicial oversight.”
In several murder cases, police failed to gather key forensic evidence such as bone fragments after mobs set bodies on fire; nor did they produce key witnesses at trial, she said.
“Police also failed to provide adequate protection to witnesses, many of whom later retracted their statements made to the police allegedly due to fear and intimidations,” Arora said. “Even years after the violence, Christians in Kandhamal, Orissa continue to live in fear, unable in many parts to return to their homes and fields. They have been threatened and coerced to convert to Hinduism.”
Elliott Abrams, a commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), told the subcommittee that lack of an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom has sent a message of apathy to countries that routinely persecute religious minorities.
“The president last week at the National Prayer Breakfast suggested a nomination would be coming quickly – I hope so, because this is the key official within the U.S. government in the executive branch, coordinating and developing U.S. policy for international religious freedom,” Abrams said. “And if there is a long vacancy, it weakens the attention of the executive branch, it weakens the efforts of the executive branch, and it sends a message to countries around the world of inattention and lack of concern.”
Obama left the post vacant until midway through his second year in office, finally nominating Susan Johnson Cook on June 15, 2009. The Senate put a hold on her nomination, which then expired at the end of the 111th session of Congress on Jan. 3, 2011; she was re-nominated and confirmed in April 2011, but she resigned in October of last year.
The Obama administration has not set a timeline to nominate another ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Obama, whose administration has come under criticism for limiting the definition of religious freedom and doing little to protect it, defended his record before the 3,500 people at the prayer breakfast on Thursday (Feb. 6).
Asserting that promoting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy, Obama appeared to agree with long-time pleas from advocacy groups that the White House regard international religious freedom as an integral part of national security.
“History shows that nations that uphold the rights of their people – including the freedom of religion – are ultimately more just and more peaceful and more successful,” he said. “Nations that do not uphold these rights sow the bitter seeds of instability and violence and extremism. So freedom of religion matters to our national security.”
Obama also called on Iran to release imprisoned pastor Saeed Abedini and on North Korea to free missionary Kenneth Bae.
At the subcommittee hearing, which was live-streamed this morning, chairman Chris Smith (R-N.J.), asked USCIRF Commissioner Abrams why the administration has been slow to designate violators of religious freedom as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) as directed by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998.
“The system is not working the way it was established in the Act – it hasn’t under several administrations, it’s not just the Obama administration,” Abrams said. “The Obama administration made CPC designations only once in the first four years, and the Act requires it every year.”
Such inaction sends a message to other governments that the United States does not care about violations of religious freedom, Abrams said. The IRFA empowers the United States to impose sanctions on countries designated as CPCs.
“There are a lot of things that can be done,” Abrams told the subcommittee. “On the sanctions angle, all too often there are no sanctions or there’s a doubling – you have a country that’s under some other sanction, and so you say, ‘Well, that’s for [lack of] religious freedom too.’
“There’s lots of flexibility, and I’m afraid we’re not using it, so the message that comes across is one of inattention. The CPC system, I would say, is broken.”