In India, police dressed in plainclothes in the Western state of Gujarat flogged four Muslim men accused of injuring Hindu worshippers during a festival last October. In the state of Madhya Pradesh, the government bulldozed Muslim-owned homes and shops last April. And throughout 2022, police arrested Christians accused of forcefully converting others and even aided crowds as they disrupted worship services.
These are just a few of the many damning instances highlighted in the U.S. Department’s newly released Religious Freedom Report for 2022. The report annually surveys religious freedoms around the world and aims to provide a “fact-based, comprehensive view of the state of religious freedom” in nearly 200 countries and territories.
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At an event in Washington on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told reporters that the report includes “the rise of very troubling trends.” Among its key findings, the report calls out several countries including India, China, Russia, and Iran for violations of explicitly targeting members from certain faith communities. Although Blinken did not specifically mention India in his speech, a detailed section of the report—as well as a background briefing that followed— highlighted the continual targeted attacks against religious minorities in India. An anonymous spokesperson at the briefing also noted how India currently ranks eighth among 162 countries for the highest risk of mass killing, according to a project by the U.S. Holocaust museum.
The report’s release comes a month before the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi travels to Washington for his first official state visit, which will include a state dinner at the White House. He has previously visited the U.S. on five other occasions classified as “working visits.”
What did the report find in India?
India, the world’s most populous country with 1.4 billion people, is known to be both diverse and devout, comprising many different faiths including Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. The Indian Constitution declares the country as secular and the last Census conducted in 2011 revealed that 80% of the Indian population is Hindu, while 14% is Muslim and 2% is Christian.
The report expresses a number of concerns over India’s religious freedom. It highlights how religious conversion is legally prohibited in multiple states, how religious minorities are attacked on a regular basis, and how Muslims have alleged systemic discrimination—including “cow vigilantism,” which often results in attacks for alleged cow slaughter or beef trade.
At Monday’s press briefing, a senior State Department official told reporters how the report outlines “continued, targeted attacks against religious communities” that promote “dehumanizing rhetoric” and “hate-fueled violence.” The official mentioned the international community’s response to the situation in India, including from the U.S. Holocaust museum and several human rights organizations.
When asked how the U.S. would address these concerns with the Indian government ahead of Modi’s visit next month, the official told reporters, “We’re continuing to encourage the government to condemn violence and hold accountable and protect all groups who engage in rhetoric that’s dehumanizing towards religious minorities and all groups who engage in violence against religious communities and other communities in India.”
Has the Indian government responded?
The Indian government responded to the report by issuing an official statement from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, which stated that “such reports continue to be based on misinformation and flawed understanding.”
It said that “motivated and biased commentary” by some U.S. officials continued to undermine further the credibility of such reports, adding that it would continue to have “frank conversations” on “issues of concern” with the U.S. government.
Last year the country was singled out by the Secretary of State, who referred to “rising attacks on people and places of worship” in India. The remarks led to a furious response from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, which accused Washington of practicing “vote bank politics” in “international relations.”
New Delhi has also pushed back against criticism in other instances, especially from the bipartisan U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) which, since 2020, has advised the State Department to put India on a blacklist over its record. USCIRF once again made the recommendation earlier this month when it released its annual report on May 1st, which the State Department has so far rejected.
Despite the reports, the State Department does not currently officially designate the country as a “Country of Particular Concern.”
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Why does the U.S. State Department compile this report?
By law, the State Department is required to submit a report on international religious freedoms annually to Congress. The law was signed into effect by former U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1998 to promote religious freedom around the world. The report is prepared by the office of International Religious Freedom in Washington and based on information collected from government officials, religious groups, NGOs, human rights monitors, media reports, and others both domestically and abroad. The report states that the department’s guiding principle is ensuring that all information is presented as “objectively, thoroughly, and fairly as possible.”
What were the report’s key takeaways in other countries?
The report unveils how governments use anti-conversion, blasphemy and apostasy laws around the world to “justify harassment against those who don’t follow their particular interpretation of a theology,” Blinken told reporters. Religious violations include the targeting of faith-based groups in Russia against those who speak out against the war in Ukraine; the imprisonment and exile of Muslim Uyghurs in China, as well as the repression of Tibetan Buddhists, Christians and Falun Gong practitioners; and attacks against those who do not toe the Taliban’s “narrow theological line” in Afghanistan.
Blinken also spoke of Islamic theocracy in Iran, including draconian laws and punishments for religious offenses, as well as the ongoing wave of protests led by women against compulsory hijab, inspired by the death of Mahsa Amini last September. The report mentions how Iranian forces have killed 512 protestors, including 69 children, arrested 19,204 individuals and executed at least one person linked to the demonstrations on the charge of “enmity against God” in the aftermath of Amini’s death.
Along with these instances, Blinken also said that the report captured examples of progress, citing how Belgium formally recognized its Buddhist minority and how Brazilian lawmakers codified religious freedom guarantees for Afro-Brazilian indigenous communities. “More broadly, civil society and other concerned governments around the world have successfully secured the release of many who have been detained, even in prison for exercising their freedom of religion or belief,” he said.