Compassion International and India: The New York Times leaves a UN-shaped hole

If you have followed news in India in recent years, you know that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party -- commonly known as the BJP -- has continued its efforts to promote "Hindutva," or Hindu-ness, which essentially argues that Hinduism is an essential component of what it means to be a citizen of India.

Thus, it's goal is to defeat secular pluralism and the recognition of a valid role for other faiths in public life. The side effect has, in many cases, been a crackdown on many of the activities of other faiths in India -- especially ministries linked to foreign groups.

Tensions between Muslims and Hindus remain a fact of life. Meanwhile, attacks on Christians -- including a much-publicized gang rape of a 71-year-old nun -- have risen by 20 or 30 percent in recent years.

This brings us to a detailed New York Times report on the latest battle in this conflict, which ran with this headline: "Major Christian Charity Is Closing India Operations Amid a Crackdown."

The key is that officials in India are accusing a major ministry of evangelism, of converting people to Christianity.  What the story never addresses are these questions: As a matter of human rights, do citizens in India have the right to convert to another faith? Do members of one faith have a right to discuss their faith with others? Here is the overture:

NEW DELHI -- India’s crackdown on foreign aid will claim its most prominent casualty this month, as a Colorado-based Christian charity that is one of India’s biggest donors closes its operations here after 48 years, informing tens of thousands of children that they will no longer receive meals, medical care or tuition payments.
The shutdown of the charity, Compassion International, on suspicion of engaging in religious conversion, comes as India, a rising economic power with a swelling spirit of nationalism, curtails the flow of foreign money to activities it deems “detrimental to the national interest.”
More than 11,000 nongovernmental organizations have lost their licenses to accept foreign funds since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014. Major Western funders -- among them George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and the National Endowment for Democracy -- have been barred from transferring funds without permission from Indian security officials.
But few have been as vocal about their struggle as Compassion International, which solicits donations through its $38-a-month “sponsor a child” program and distributes them through church-affiliated service centers. It has repeatedly ranked as India’s largest single foreign donor, transferring around $45 million a year.

It is understandable that the Times had trouble pinning down the precise nature of the accusations against Compassion International. The story notes: "A spokesman for India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees regulation of foreign charities, declined repeated requests for comment on the case."

At one point, the story stresses that Compassion officials deny accusations that -- as the Times team states, in a paraphrase -- their workers are "funding religious conversions." The implication is that Compassion is being accused of paying money to "rice Christians," people who say they have converted in exchange for money, food or other material benefits (such as school tuition).

If you watch the Compassion International video at the top of this post, you will see that this ministry openly acknowledges its roots in missionary work. When I worked the Godbeat at the Rocky Mountain News, I covered Compassion International -- including reporting in the Dominican Republic in which we followed letters from sponsors all the way to individual children in slums and rural areas. In that land, most of the children were Christians, but some were not. It was clear that aid was being given to anyone who wanted to take part in the ministry's programs.

But elsewhere in the story, the nature of the accusations against Compassion International -- which operates as a charity group -- are stated in different terms. For example:

A spokesman for India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees regulation of foreign charities, declined repeated requests for comment on the case.
A Foreign Ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, following diplomatic protocol, said that Compassion International’s partners were violating Indian law by engaging in religious activities, and that the organization declined a government offer to re-register as a religious organization, which would have allowed it to continue its work in India.

OK, this raises a logical question: Are these so-called "religious organizations" allowed to fund activities that may or may not lead to conversions? What kinds of "religious activities" are illegal in India and who makes that call?

Note the distinction here: It is one thing to fund a program in which a person must convert to another faith in order to receive benefits. It is something else to fund a program in which all participants are given the same benefits, but individuals have the freedom to convert if they choose to do so.

The Times never nails down -- perhaps because officials refused to answer this question -- the precise nature of the current accusations.

The target keeps shifting. Here is another crucial passage, describing raids on Compassion offices by tax officials:

Sam Jebagnanam, a field officer based in Chennai, described the searches as “harrowing,” with staff members questioned through the night and forbidden to leave the office, summon a lawyer or order food.
The investigators, he said, focused their questions on a vacation Bible school funded by the charity. Seventy-six percent of the children served by the program are Hindu, and 28 percent are Christian, he said.
At another raid, he said, a top executive was interrogated under oath at 3 a.m.
“They kept asking him: ‘Why did you have a spiritual component to the program? What do you do in the area of spiritual development?’” he said. “We said we teach moral values; we do not force anyone into religion.”

The crucial word there is "force." I would assume that in a "vacation Bible school" there was some discussion of Bible stories. Is that now illegal in India?

What is my main point here? The question that is never answered -- I do not know if it was asked by members of the Times team -- is this: Is evangelism, in and of itself, now illegal in India? Can members of Indian churches talk to their neighbors about faith issues? Can foreign missionaries do that? Are "religious organizations" allowed to sponsor activities in which religious issues are discussed?

This brings me to an important United Nations document -- a liberal document, in the true sense of the word -- that has been discussed here at GetReligion many times. I am talking about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 18 in that document states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

This Times article, as I said earlier, is long and quite complex. It appears clear, in this article, that BJP officials believe it is bad when voluntary conversions take place during Compassion International activities. The government does not appear to draw a line between paying people to convert to Christianity ("funding conversions") and funding charity programs and religious activities in which people have an opportunity to convert.

My question is not whether Times editors agree with the BJP or with the UN Declaration of Human Rights. My question is whether members of the Times team saw this line between conversions and forced conversions. Did Times editors recognize that this battle between India and Compassion International hinges on a human rights issue, one at the heart of what it means for a nation to defend (or attack) freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Just asking.

FIRST IMAGE: Screen shot from a Compassion International weblog containing information for sponsors.

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