US Congressman McClintock’s Office Affirms Support for Religious Liberty in India

Constituents share concerns about Indian State’s proposals for a national anti-conversion law

ROSEVILLE, CA: Jan. 19, 2015 – Constituents of Northern California Congressman Tom McClintock joined an official delegation from human rights group Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI) on January 14 to warn the Republican representative’s office about proposals by India’s ruling party to require state approval for religious conversions.

(L-R) Friedrich, Singh, Birman, and Macias
(L-R) Friedrich, Singh, Birman, and Macias

Commenting on the meeting, McClintock’s Chief of Staff, Igor Birman, said, “On Wednesday, I was pleased to meet with advocates for Indian minorities who expressed their gratitude for Congressman McClintock’s cosponsorship of last year’s House Resolution 417. They also shared grave concerns about a new proposal in India for a national ban on religious conversion without state permission. Congressman McClintock recognizes freedom of religion as foundational to any free society and he will continue to study and investigate this issue with care.”

Bhajan Singh, Founding Director of OFMI, was joined by constituents Steve Macias and Pieter Friedrich for the meeting with Birman. Singh was glad to find an empathetic ear, saying: “His compassion, belief in human dignity, and willingness to speak out for liberty both at home and abroad has engendered a lot of trust in the relationship between Congressman McClintock and his sizable constituency of South Asian minorities.”

Six of India’s 29 states have already passed bans on free religious conversion. The first anti-conversion law of the 21st century (PDF link) was passed in the State of Gujarat under the rule of then-Chief Minister Narendra Modi; it requires both clergy and potential converts to report a change in belief to the local magistrate and wait for permission to switch religions. Penalties are stiff: up to four years in prison and fines of up to 100,000 rupees for participating in a conversion ceremony without state permission. The highest penalties are for converting women and people of low-castes. The law prohibits the use of “allurement” or “force” to attract converts, but defines force as including any mention of “divine displeasure.” Missionaries in India report that authorities often define “allurement” as including promises of forgiveness and eternal life.

Friedrich, a Christian, remarked, “Last year, a UN official said anti-conversion laws threaten religious freedom and are mostly used to threaten missionaries. The official called out Modi’s Gujarat law as one of the worst. These laws basically criminalize minority religions, including Christianity, which requires its adherents to spread their faith and teaches that God is displeased with humanity’s rebellion but is appeased by belief in Jesus Christ, resulting in eternal life. If throwing people in prison for peacefully teaching this message is not persecution, then what is?”

Narendra Modi is now India’s Prime Minister, and his political party recently took a strong stance in favor of regulating religious liberty. On December 27, Home Minister Rajnath Singh (one of the country’s top cabinet members), said: “To check conversion, I think an anti-conversion law need to be framed.” Amit Shah, president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), stated just a few days before Christmas 2014: “The government is ready to bring in a law against forced conversions…. There is need for an all-India law.”

Congressman Tom McClintock
Congressman Tom McClintock

Last spring, Congressman McClintock encouraged freedom of religion in India after signing on to House Resolution 417, announcing: “I am pleased to cosponsor this resolution which praises both religious diversity and urges the protection of religious minorities.” The bi-partisan resolution, backed by 26 Democrats and 25 Republicans, sought to make “religious freedom and related human rights” central concerns in the U.S. government’s formal dialogues with India. The resolution faltered after the chairs of the House’s Foreign Affairs and Judiciary committees, to which it was referred, refused to give it a hearing.

In May 2014, Representative Joe Pitts, the Philadelphia congressman who co-authored H. Res. 417, commented on Modi’s election as Prime Minister of India, saying: “BJP needs to demonstrate that it has broken free of its past record of tolerating and in some cases fomenting discrimination against religious minorities in India.”

The resolution noted that “the United States Government denied Minister Modi a visa to the United States in 2005 on the grounds of egregious religious freedom violations under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the first and only time such a denial has been issued.” Pitts was instrumental in achieving the visa ban; it was issued by the U.S. State Department only two days after Pitts linked arms with African-American Rep. John Conyers to introduce House Resolution 160, specifically condemning Modi’s “actions to incite religious persecution.”

Sophomore Congressman Ami Bera, a representative from the Sacramento region who is the only Indian-American in the U.S. Congress, was protested during the 2014 General Election over his links to Modi. Covering the demonstration, local news channel FOX40 reported: “The American Religious Freedom Coalition protested outside of Bera’s district office in Rancho Cordova. They’re protesting Bera’s alleged ties with the Prime Minister of India. The Prime Minister’s political party has been accused of persecuting and killing Christians in India. The American Religious Freedom Coalition said that they fear that will have an influence on Bera.”