Communalism

Charity under threat

Print edition : April 14, 2017

Pramod Dass, director of Bethesda Charitable Endeavors, an Indian partner of the U.S.-based Compassion International (CI), at his office in New Delhi, on March 5. CI had to wind up its operations on March 15. Photo: Poras Chaudhary/NYT

The stoppage of funds for Christian organisations and the restrictions on their outreach programmes have left the community fearful of what may come in the next few years.

FAITH-BASED charities that are not aligned to the interests of the ruling dispensation have been under threat of closure in India in the past three years. The funds of several small and medium organisations were squeezed, which rendered them unable to continue operations. The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) is being systematically deployed to curb activities by Christian charities across the country, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) claim.

Compassion International (CI), arguably the largest single donor in the child development sector, was forced to shut down its operations in India in February. This brought to the fore the issues plaguing Christian charities. Santiago Jimmy Mellado, president and chief executive officer of CI, said: “When the new administration came in three years ago, it began to scrutinise all the work done by NGOs in the country. We are one of 30,000 NGOs in the country. We came under scrutiny because we are the largest NGO that helps sponsor children in India.”

In May 2016, the Ministry of Home Affairs blocked CI from sending money to its two country offices and church partners. It was put on the “prior approval” list, and all requested approvals were denied. Consequently, CI could not pay its staff or fund programmes. For a year CI tried to resolve the impasse. John Kerry, then United States Secretary of State, intervened on its behalf with Indian officials. On December 6, 2016, CI’s general counsel testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in a special hearing. Despite these attempts, the organisation was unsuccessful in getting the curbs on its funds removed. On March 15, it wrapped up its work in the country. According to an article in The New York Times, the organisation was forced to move out of the country on accusations of religious conversions. CI vehemently denies the charge.

Its departure will impact the lives of 1,47,000 babies, children, young adults and mothers, who were part of its programmes, and 127 staff members, according to CI. In the 48 years of its activities in the country, CI sponsored 1,45,000 children and brought in $48-50 million a year to India, according to Silas Balraj, vice president, Asia region. It partnered more than 589 churches for local projects and operated orphanages, leprosy homes for children and family welfare programmes supporting widowed mothers.

Dr John Thomas, Padri of a church in Bowbazar, Kolkata, and chairman of CI for 10 years, defended CI’s work: “There has not been a single rupee that was mishandled, nor have I seen any conversion in all these years. That is simply not our policy. We are an independent Christian organisation helping all we can, without any discrimination on the basis of caste or creed. Our work involved rescuing girls from prostitution and going into villages to treat oral cancer and dental diseases. The churches we partnered in the process for better grass-roots connect will hopefully carry on that work.”

On the issue of conversions, Mellado said: “I want to assure you that Compassion has broken no laws in India. We have been and remain committed to abiding by the laws of every country where we serve. You may have seen reports from the Indian media accusing Compassion of forcing children to convert to Christianity in order to receive the benefits of our programme. That, of course, is simply not true. We partner with local Christian churches to extend the love of Jesus in very tangible ways, but we never required a child to convert to Christianity to benefit from our programme. To do so would violate the dignity, freedom and grace that Jesus so freely gives each of us. Our church partners deliver Compassion’s holistic child development programme to children in need, regardless of race, religion, caste or creed.”

An official of CI confirmed, on conditions of anonymity, reports that there was undue influence by members of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) to stop CI’s work in India. But the Ministry of External Affairs rubbished the reports and said the issue was “totally extraneous to the law enforcement action”. The RSS, too, distanced itself from the reports. Its spokesperson, Manmohan Vaidya, said: “The news published in NYT on March 7, regarding Compassion International’s so-called ‘back-channel negotiation with the RSS representative in Washington, D.C., is unfair and totally false. The RSS works only in India and has no representative in any foreign country. NYT never contacted the RSS in this regard. We condemn such an attempt by NYT to malign the image of the RSS.”

Mark Toner, acting spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, said the U.S. authorities had raised the issue with India through diplomatic channels. “Unfortunately, we have seen over the past couple of years a number of foreign-funded NGOs in India that have encountered significant challenges in continuing their operations.”

Meanwhile, NGOs connected to churches in India continued to feel the heat from the Ministry of Home Affairs without getting much press attention. The renewal of the FCRA licence for Florence Home Foundation in Cuddalore was reversed “in public interest” after it was “inadvertently” granted. Similarly, the licence of United Theological College in Bengaluru was temporarily suspended “in public interest”. Kerala Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services had its FCRA cancelled. Hundreds of organisations were impacted. Just to name a few that came under the lens: Archdiocese Of Bombay Archbishop, Bareilly Diocesan Social Service Centre, Andhra Christian Faith Evangelistic Association, Girls Christian Institute, Carmel Ashram, Bethesda Mission, Hillview Adventist School, Surya Para Christian Hostel, Society Of Oblates Of Mary Immaculate, Faith Gospel Ministries, Life in Jesus Prayer Mission Trust, St. Sebastian Church, Malabar Bible Fellowship and Bible Church of God.

Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju in a written reply in the Rajya Sabha to Wansuk Syiem, said adverse reports were received from intelligence agencies against NGOs such as Tuticorin Diocesan Association; the East Coast Research and Development Trust, Thoothukudi; and the Centre for Promotion of Social Concerns, Madurai. On the basis of inspections and investigations, the FCRA registration of Tuticorin Diocesan Association and of the Centre for Promotion of Social Concerns was suspended and their bank accounts were frozen. The FCRA registration of the East Coast Research and Development Trust was cancelled.

FCRA as a tool

John Dayal, former president of the All India Catholic Union, said all governments had used the FCRA as a tool to stifle political opposition. But, he added, the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party was using it to grossly restrict, if not completely halt, the outreach and empowerment programmes conducted through the Church. Organisations connected with churches were not allowed to carry out work relating to the rights of Dalits, minorities and tribal people or issues of water, land and agriculture. “The National Democratic Alliance government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was arguably the worst ever in its record of misusing the FCRA provisions to curb dissent and throttle the voices of civil society. Its Home Minister, ‘Iron Man’ Lal Krishan Advani, added innuendo to the normal rhetoric, repeatedly insinuating that Christian organisations were receiving massive funds for conversions and Muslims were getting money for setting up madrasas to teach terrorism. At the same time, the leadership of a section of the Church is keen to be seen to comply, and they stop their outreach readily. Many organisations that were vibrant or spoke against communalism are now silent and submissive. Even if it is just a silent stick used against them, it is still a stick and the writing on the wall is for all to see,” he said.

Meanwhile, India has risen to number 15, up from 31 four years ago, in the 2017 World Watch List presented by the watchdog Open Doors of the top 50 countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith. Without mincing words, the report indicts the BJP-led government at the Centre: “Since May 2014, India has been governed by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the years since, radical Hinduism, which was already present under the previous government, has been on the rise. While the level of intolerance continues to increase, Christians are regularly attacked by Hindu extremists. The level of impunity has gone up markedly, with communities of converts to Christianity from Hinduism bearing the brunt of the persecution. They are constantly under pressure to return to their old beliefs, and are often physically assaulted, sometimes killed. Protestant Christian communities are the second main target because of their involvement in outreach activities and conversions, and they also face regular attacks by radical Hindus.” This two-pronged attack on Christians—persecution on one hand and removal of community recourse on the other—has led to many in the community fearing the worst in the days ahead.

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