President Trump’s Missed Opportunity in India
By ICC’s India Correspondent
03/04/2020 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump made his first state visit to India. From the outset, the two-day affair was billed as a grand show of partnership and cooperation between the leaders of the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy. Unfortunately, for India’s Christian minority, President Trump missed an important opportunity to speak out against diminishing religious freedom in India.
As President Trump and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Taj Mahal, an ashram used by Gandhi, and attended the ‘Namaste, Trump’ mega-rally, the persecution of India’s religious minorities continued, unabated. International Christian Concern (ICC) documented at least 12 incidents of Christian persecution taking place in the day leading up to or during President Trump’s visit. These included physical assaults, arrests, and the closure of churches.
Despite this upsurge in violence, President Trump praised Prime Minister Modi on the issue of religious freedom. President Trump said Prime Minister Modi was “incredible” on religious freedom and that the Prime Minister wants “the people to have religious freedom and very strongly.”
These statements of support for Prime Minister Modi were a significant disappointment for many Indian Christians, especially survivors of religiously motivated violence. In response, ICC talked with several Christian leaders to hear their thoughts on President Trump’s visit to India.
“We were hoping that President Trump would talk about the increased attacks on Christians and other religious minorities,” Pastor Amit Massiah told ICC. “If he would have highlighted this issue, the situation for minorities would have changed for the better.”
“It appears to me that both President Trump and Prime Minister Modi used the trip for other political opportunities,” Pastor Massiah explained. “President Trump wanted to use the trip to win his second term as president. Prime Minister Modi wanted to use the trip to tell the world that all is well in India. He used President Trump to communicate this message to the world.”
On Sunday, March 1, Pastor Massiah and his wife were attacked by members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a radical Hindu nationalist organization, in Faridpur, Uttar Pradesh. The couple was dragged out of a prayer gathering in a Christian home and beaten. When police arrived on the scene, the couple was arrested and falsely accused of engaging in forced religious conversions.
Pastor Massiah and his wife were then kept in police lock-up for the entire day and were eventually released. According to Pastor Massiah, police accepted false allegations made by the radicals and have booked a First Information Report (FIR) against him and his wife.
“We look to President Trump as a world leader, and it is sad that he did not speak on religious freedom,” Pastor Massiah told ICC. “This issue matters to the Christian minority of this country.”
“I don’t think President Trump’s visit will have any effect for Christians in India,” Rev. Austin Dinakar, an Anglican pastor from Hyderabad, Telangana, told ICC. “If there is going to be any effect, it is going to be negative.”
“President Trump’s double talk is very discouraging,” Rev. Dinakar continued. “In the United States, he speaks about religious freedom. However, when he had the opportunity to speak on religious freedom in India, he did not stand up. He missed an opportunity to say something that would improve religious freedom in my country.”
On February 22nd, two days before President Trump arrived in India, Rev. Dinakar and his wife were assaulted by radical Hindu nationalists while returning home from a prayer meeting in Hyderabad. “If I can be attacked in the city of Hyderabad, I don’t think Christians in India are safe anymore,” Rev. Dinakar explained. “Where is the accountability?”
“I was happy when I heard President Trump would be visiting India,” Pastor Manju Kerralli from Bennakoppa village, Karnataka, told ICC. “I thought that President Trump would speak about the persecution of Christians in our country. Sadly, he said nothing about people being beaten up for following different faiths.”
“Leaders in the Indian government try to portray that all is well in India,” Pastor Kerralli continued. “President Trump missed an opportunity to improve the situation of minorities by highlighting religious freedom.”
On March 1, Pastor Kerralli was brutally attacked by members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, another radical Hindu nationalist organization. The radicals tied Pastor Kerralli to a tree and beat him for more than three hours. After the assault, the radicals took Pastor Kerralli to the local police, where he was arrested.
“Even the police threatened me with foul language,” Pastor Kerralli told ICC. “They said that I don’t have the right to live in India because I am practicing a foreign faith.”
Since taking power in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Modi, has overseen a regime in which religious intolerance and attacks on religious minorities have dramatically increased. Many point to the BJP’s ideological commitment to Hindu nationalism to explain this rise in intolerance and violence. When the BJP’s, often public, commitment to Hindu nationalism is coupled with the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of religiously motivated violence, it is easy to see why attacks on minorities have increased.
Strong statements in support of religious freedom in India must be made to break this cycle of nationalism, intolerance, and impunity. To date, the BJP-led government and Prime Minister Modi have shown little interest in making these strong statements. This lack of interest by India’s leaders is why President Trump’s failure to speak up for religious freedom in India was such a missed opportunity for the country’s persecuted Christians.