On Friday, an open letter to President George W. Bush was delivered to representatives of the Bush administration, calling for action against anti-Christian violence in India. The letter's signatories asked him to urge Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to pressure regional and local governments to enforce the freedom of religion guaranteed in the Indian Constitution.
The letter was signed by 24 prominent Christian leaders, including leaders from historic church bodies such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Coptic Church, and the Armenian Orthodox Church, as well as mainline Protestant, evangelical, Pentecostal charismatic, and traditional African-American bodies. Signatories also included representatives from international religious freedom ministries such as Open Doors and Voice of the Martyrs. (See complete list of signatories below.)
Mob violence against Christians has centered on Kandhamal in Orissa state. Approximately 20 percent of those living in Kandhamal are Christian, compared with 2.6 percent in the rest of Orissa. The increase in Christians in this area has exacerbated long-standing tensions between ethnic and religious groups, and Hindu extremist groups have blamed Christians for the 2007 assassination of a Hindu swami, which was in fact perpetrated by Maoists, who claimed responsibility for the killing of a Hindu political worker this past week. Other factors, such as allegations of "aggressive" proselytization by Christians are also used to incite the mob violence. In sharing their faith, Orissa Christians have not broken the law, but have engaged in activity protected by the Indian Constitution and by international conventions.
The anti-Christian violence in Orissa has temporarily subsided, but it is spreading to other regions, in part due to the Indian government's lack of political will to bring order. Because President Bush signed a nuclear trade agreement with the Prime Minister Singh a few months ago, he has the political capital with Indian leadership that President-elect Obama will need to earn. This matter cannot wait until the new Obama administration sorts out its priorities.
As U.S. churches observe the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church on Sunday, they would do well to remember the Christians of Orissa and to join the letter's signatories in urging the United States to use its diplomatic power to influence the Indian government to right these wrongs.
Here is text of the letter delivered Friday to the Bush administration:
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The Honorable George W. Bush
The White House
Dear Mr. President:
For more than two months, Christians in seven of India's states have borne the brunt of repeated waves of violent and deadly attacks that have left scores of people murdered, communities and churches destroyed, and tens of thousands of people homeless. The situation demands a strong and urgent American response to a strategic democratic global partner such as India.
As has been well documented, the violence erupted following the tragic attack on a charismatic Hindu leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four others, which led to their deaths on August 23. Although a radical Maoist group claimed responsibility for the killings, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) blamed the deaths on the Indian Christian community. Using the instability created by the violence, Hindu extremist groups fostered civil unrest, initially attacking poor Christians in India's eastern state of Orissa as well as Christian agencies who serve the poor and the needy from diverse religious backgrounds in that state.
For some time, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its allies regularly have alleged that Christians use force and material benefits to lure Hindus into "forced conversions," charges for which no proof has been produced and that local Christian leaders steadfastly deny.
Indian Christian leaders from various denominations have expressed in writing their deep shock at the magnitude of the human rights violations launched by Hindu extremists against the mostly poor Christians in the state of Orissa. They have also criticized the government for its subsequent handling of the incident as well as for not providing civil protection to these Indian citizens.
During his weekly audience at the Vatican, Pope Benedict has called the killing of the Hindu leader "deplorable" and also expressed his sadness at violence against Christians.
The failure of the Indian government at the federal and state levels to act has led to the spread of the violence from Orissa into six other states — Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand.
To date, Christians in these states have become the targets of the extremists' hatred. More than 60 people have been killed; some 50,000 people have been left homeless; and some still remain in hiding. Churches and Christian-run institutions serving mostly poor communities have been utterly destroyed. Other minorities have also been attacked.
Modern India's founding father, Mohandas Gandhi, said, "My notion of democracy is that under it the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest. This can never happen except through non-violence."
What has happened recently in India, and has been happening over the past few years, is tantamount to "religious cleansing" of Christians and other minorities by extremists. This in the world's largest democracy that is a nuclear power and recently sent a mission to the moon.
Earlier this summer you affixed your signature to legislation that enacted a US-India nuclear trade agreement with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. At the time you stated, "This agreement sends a signal to the world — nations that follow the path to democracy and responsible behavior will find a friend in the United States."
We urge you, therefore, to hold the Indian government accountable to its own constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion and religious expression for all its citizens. As the world's largest democracy, India must demonstrate its responsibility and ability to uphold that constitution. We ask that you express to Prime Minister Singh the U.S. government's abhorrence of the continued violence against Christians and other minorities within India's borders. You should insist, in the strongest terms, that these reprehensible groups and the assenting local government agencies be brought into conformity with India's rule of law. Only if India agrees and acts with goodwill toward all its citizens will it continue to be viewed as a responsible global partner worthy of a place on the world stage with other democratic nations.
Armenian Orthodox Church
Dr. Ken Bensen, CEO
Habitat for Humanity of Michigan
Jeff Farmer, President
Open Bible Churches
Wes Granberg-Michaelson, General Secretary
Reformed Church in America
John Graz, Secretary General
International Religious Liberty Association
Dr. Richard L. "Dick" Hamm, Executive Administrator
Christian Churches Together
Archbishop Cyril Aphrem Karim, Archbishop
Archdioceses of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch for the Eastern USA
Bishop James Leggett , Presiding Bishop
International Pentecostal Holiness Church
Rev. Michael E. Livingston, Executive Director
International Council of Community Churches, and Immediate Past President,
National Council of Churches, USA
Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent
The Wesleyan Church
Dr. Carl A. Moeller, President/CEO
Open Doors USA
David Neff, Editor in Chief
Christianity Today magazine
Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Bishop Serapion, Bishop of Los Angeles
Coptic Orthodox Church
Dr. William Shaw, President
National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.
James M. Shea, S.J., Provincial
Maryland Province Jesuits
Ronald J. Sider, President
Evangelicals for Social Action
Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President
United Church of Christ
Bishop Matthew A. Thomas, Bishop
Free Methodist Church of North America
Dr. Daniel Vestal, President
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship
Berten A. Waggoner, National Director
Bishop Thomas G. Wenski, Chairman
Committee on International Justice and Peace
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Dr. Tom White, Executive Director
The Voice of the Martyrs
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