US religious freedom official’s visit to India follows criticism
New York, Dec 10 (IANS) A US religious freedom official is to visit India next week on the heels of criticism by Congressional leaders on restrictions on a Christian organisation funding activities in India.
New Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai are on the itinerary of David Saperstein, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, who will discuss religious freedom with government officials, civil society representatives, and leaders of both majority and minority religious communities, the State Department said on Friday.
The announcement of Saperstein’s visit came a day after US Congress members asked India to ease restrictions on Compassion International sending funds to India.
At the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Thursday on “government obstacles” to Compassion International, Ed Royce, a Republican Representative, criticised the Indian bureaucracy for restrictions placed on it sending money to related organisations in India.
Royce, who is also the head of the Congressional Caucus on India, said that organisation sends 145,000 Indian children $38 every month.
Royce questioned assertions that the Christian organisation was involved in conversions.
However, Compassion International states on its website that its mission is to enable the children it helps “to become responsible and fulfilled Christian adults.”
It also says: “A local church partner is always the implementer of our child development work” and adds, “Our decision to partner with local churches is a strategic one.”
At the hearing, Stephen Oakley, the organisation’s general counsel, claimed that $18 million in taxes levied by the Commissioner of Income Tax on one of its beneficiaries, a charitable public trust, for transferring funds meant for charity to religious organisations was “illegal”.
He also questioned the use of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) by the Home Ministry to require Compassion International to get prior clearance for giving money to Indian organisations.
Oakley was joined by Irfan Nooruddin, the Hamad bin Khalifa Professor of Indian Politics at the Catholic-run Georgetown University, in criticising the application of the FCRA.
Nooruddin referred to New Delhi’s “decision to reconsider its position on Ford Foundation’s status” for distributing funds to Indian organisations that he attributed to criticism by Congress, Secretary of State John Kerry and Ambassador Richard Verma.
This showed that India was susceptible to US pressures and it “can be leveraged to demand more transparent applications of FCRA rules and stronger commitments to protecting religious minorities in India even if the government appears reluctant thus far to do the same for Compassion International.”
John Sifton, the Asia Policy Director of Human Rights Watch also attacked the regulation of NGOs through the FCRA saying it was “intrusive” and “overbroad and over reaching”.
“This harassment of NGOs is taking place in a context in which religious minority groups, in particular Muslim and Christians, are at increased risk,” he said.
(Arul Louis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)