America's initiative to monitor religious persecution abroad is making waves in other countries, but not always the kind it intended.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom - created to advise the president and Congress - recently held hearings in Washington on violence against religious minorities in India and Pakistan, and what their governments are doing to protect religious practice.
These hearings often get more play in the nations examined than in the US, and can stir resentment. This isn't surprising in cases where governments are cracking down on religious groups. But in this case, resentment comes from those the commission aims to help.
Christian churches in India have objected vehemently, questioning the appropriateness of conducting hearings on the affairs of another country, particularly another democracy.
"We are a democratic country, and we have ... an interreligious platform to assert and protect our rights," Chandran Paul Martin of the National Council of Churches in India told Ecumenical News International. "We do not expect the US [to act] as an international court. Will the US accept an Indian hearing on racism there?"
And a spokesman of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India says, "We believe this problem could be solved within the country, even if it is with difficulty and delay."
Attacks against Christians and Muslims have risen dramatically in some areas in the two years since the Hindu-based Bharatiya Janata Party came to power.
While some Indians turned down an invitation to testify, John Dayal, a leader in an ecumenical movement to halt the violence, did speak at the Sept. 18 hearing. Making a sharp distinction between Hinduism as a religion and Hindutva, the political philosophy of Hindu nationalists, Dayal described the hate campaign of nationalist groups against Christians and Muslims, the effort to rewrite history texts, to pack police and government with supporters, and to pass state laws to dilute India's constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.
Since the hearing, the leader of the nationalist group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has proposed that Christian churches in India be treated similarly to those in China, putting them under government control and cutting off foreign ties.
The main charge against Christians, Dayal testified, has been the use of foreign funds to convert Hindus by force, although not one allegation of forced conversion has been authenticated.
While Hindu nationalists are the provocateurs behind these acts, differing concepts of religious freedom between Western and Eastern cultures are also a factor in the tension, according to Arvind Sharma, professor of religion at McGill University.
In the West, where an individual only professes one religion at a time, he testified, it's natural to think of freedom as the right to change one's faith. In the East, participation in more than one religion is not uncommon. Most Hindus are opposed to the idea of conversion, he says, because they feel one should not have to give up one faith to pursue another. Hindu nationalists also see conversion as involving "cultural violence," separating one from one's Hindu cultural roots.
Christians in Pakistan, which has a military government and a constitution favoring Islam, tended to support the hearing. Non-Muslim religions there are restricted and minorities can be threatened with the death penalty for blasphemy against Islam.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society