Religious minorities being 'targeted' in India
Christian Solidarity Worldwide has released a briefing to suggest ways in which to increase religious freedom in India ahead of the general elections expected to take place in May of this year.
A recent wave of violence against Christians and Muslims in the predominantly Hindu nation has resulted in a storm of international media and governmental attention, although religious hostility has been rife in India for decades.
Particularly at risk are members of the Dalit community – those otherwise known as "untouchables" – who convert to Islam or Christianity. There are constitutional protections for victims of caste-related violence, but those who choose to convert are excluded from safeguards, being entirely outcast from society.
Religious freedom is also guaranteed under India's constitution, but discriminatory legislation punishes those who choose to actively follow the Christian faith and places restrictions on the Church. Seven states in India have anti-conversion laws, which state that those who wish to convert to another religion must first gain official permission. Religious leaders are required by law to report conversions, or risk a three-year jail sentence themselves.
This has led to growing concerns for believers in the region, and CSW has released its report entitled "India: Communalism in an Election Year" which highlights statutory discrimination against Christians and Muslims, and urges the government to increase its protections.
It also underlines a concern about threats made against human rights lawyers who are working to defend those who are under attack.
"Protecting and strengthening advocacy for human rights within India is a compelling imperative," the briefing notes, describing the work of lawyers as "an essential bulwark against the worst violations".
In a meeting of the World Council of Churches on 20 February, faith representatives shared similar concerns with UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Professor Dr Heiner Bielefeldt, who promised to raise the issue of systemic injustice of religious minorities before the UN Human Rights Committee.
In a statement accompanying CSW's briefing, Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas says there are "long-term, structural issues" which the government must address if religious freedom for all is to be guaranteed.
"In this general election year, there are heightened fears about minority communities being targeted for violence or discrimination," he said.
"We continue to encourage the government to establish a legislative framework to deal adequately with such violence.
"We welcome some steps in the right direction, but there is much more that needs to be done," he concludes.