A ‘New’ India? From a Secular to a Hindu Nation.

Orissa September 2009

These women and their families are among several who share a single tent in a displacement camp housing 45 Catholic families. These families had been accommodated in five separate places since being displaced by the communal violence in August 2008. Kandhamal District, Orissa. Marcus Perkins/CSW 2009.

Rising religious intolerance is increasingly visible; be it from ghar wapis (Hindu home coming ceremonies) of religious minorities to the open incitement of hate against Muslims and Christians by senior government officials; from mob lynchings over beef consumption to attacks on places of worship; and from the distortion of historical facts in text books to the murder of renowned rationalists such as Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M. M. Kalburgi, who questioned certain Hindu practices in their writings.

The debate about the religious intolerance sweeping India is mainstream and has drawn international news coverage as India’s distinguished scientists, rationalists, actors, academics, and historians have voiced their concerns. Some have even returned their national awards in protest, including scientists, who unlike artists are not routinely engaged in public cultural critique and protest.

A Historically Secular State

One year after the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, declaring in its preamble the universality of the innate nature of human dignity, the Constitution of India was written in 1949.

The founding fathers envisioned an India where freedom of conscience would be respected by all citizens and that every Indian would live freely and without fear according to their conscience, exercising the choice to adhere to a religion or not.

The Constitution in its 42nd amendment established India as a secular state. In India, religion was intended to be kept separate from the body politic, although today the reality on the ground is starkly different as communal and religious politics are being used to polarise society.

The influence of Hindutva nationalist ideology

At the centre of this polarisation is the Hindutva ideology, which was coined by V.D Savarkar, a Hindu nationalist leader who propagated an exclusionary political ideology and promoted religious nationalism of “majoritarianism”. The aim: to make India a Hindu ‘rasthra’ (nation).

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Vietnam: Social Media as a Catalyst For Change

“What do you think is religious freedom?”

That’s the question posed in a video by the Association to Protect Freedom of Religion (APFOR), a Vietnamese organisation which aims to help “everyone in Vietnam fulfil their right to freedom of religion”.

By Hội Bảo Vệ Quyền Tự Do Tôn Giáo – What do you think is religious freedom

“A fundamental human right,” says one young interviewee.

“People have the right to express their beliefs and live according to certain religious doctrines,” comments another, this time a mechanic.

“True freedom of religion means different religions can be spread,” adds a construction worker.

The video goes on to include comments from independent researchers, legal professionals and religious followers, ending with an invitation to the viewer to share her or his own thoughts on Facebook.

APFOR have since produced another video, equally well-made and insightful, this time looking at a new draft law on religion and belief which is likely to be passed in Vietnam in 2016.

By Hội Bảo Vệ Quyền Tự Do Tôn Giáo – The right to religion, have to wait for approval?

Vietnam’s controversial draft Law on Belief and Religion

This second video was posted on Facebook in November 2015, just as the draft law was being debated at the National Assembly. It’s already proving to be a controversial issue. In a welcome move towards some degree of engagement, the government solicited feedback on the fourth draft of the law from religious organisations in spring 2015. The Government Religious Committee held several meetings with registered religious groups to discuss the law, and unregistered or independent groups have also publicised their analysis of the draft law, as have Vietnamese lawyers and international civil society organisations.

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Church Demolitions Highlight Increase in FoRB Violations in Sudan

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Sudan: Lutheran Church destroyed, October 2015

Both during and after the plebiscite for South Sudan’s independence in 2011, President al Bashir stated repeatedly that Sudan’s new constitution will be based 100% on Shari’a and that the ethnically and religiously diverse nation will be Arabic and Islamic.

For Sudan’s Christian community, an outworking of this explicit promise to erode religious and ethnic diversity has been the demolition churches, at the same time as permission to apply for new church building licences is withheld. The targeting of places of worship is just one example of ongoing repression of Christians and other religious minorities in the country.

A case in point: on 21 October 2015, a church building in Omdurman that was used by the Lutheran and Lutheran Evangelical Church was demolished. In the same week, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in Gadaref, East Sudan was burned down by unknown arsonists.

Legal and Political Context

The government of Sudan has repeatedly used the independence of South Sudan as an excuse to pursue an accelerated agenda of Islamization and Arabization. In 2013, the Ministry for Guidance and Endowments, which oversees religious affairs in the country, announced that no new church licences would be issued due to a lack of worshipers and an increase in abandoned churches after South Sudan seceded. This policy was reiterated in July 2014, just weeks after Sudan was the target of a successful international campaign to free Meriam Ibrahim, a young, pregnant mother who was sentenced to death for apostasy. The government’s defiant statement appeared to be in response to international pressure for Sudan to protect the rights of its religious minorities. Once again the government justified its policy as being a response to the changes in religious demography since South Sudanese Christians left Sudan in 2010.

Confiscation and demolition of places of worship

While the Ministry of Guidance and Endowments stopped issuing church licences, local government (particularly in Khartoum and Omdurman) continued confiscating and demolishing church properties, ostensibly to make way for development projects.

This was the case for the Lutheran and Lutheran Evangelical Church in Omdurman; local officials informed church leaders the building was listed for demolition on 20 October due to development work in the area. After appealing to the State Governor, church leaders were assured the building would not be affected.

However, it was demolished the next day, while a mosque less than 100 meters away on the same plot of land was left standing. This is not the first time a Christian place of worship and a Muslim place of worship have been treated differently.

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The UN at 70: Will Freedom of Religion or Belief Continue to be Sidelined?

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In October 2015, the United Nations – the most significant global human rights project serving seven billion people in 193 member states – turned seventy.

There is no doubt that the last 70 years have witnessed significant positive development with regards to the legal framework protecting freedom of religion or belief, however, when it comes to the actual realisation of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) across the world, the situation on the ground in many countries remains challenging.

FoRB in International Law

Although religious freedom does not have its own convention, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a core human rights treaty with 169 state parties and ratified by 169 states, as well as Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) provide strong, legal protection of FoRB These legal protections also cover those with non-religious beliefs. Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief has reported a number of violations of freedom of religion or belief to the UN Human Rights Council and provided a wealth of interpretative information and normative analysis of FoRB.

In practice: the global realisation of FoRB

However, if you base the assessment of the success of the UN on the actual realisation of religious freedom across the world, the performance of the UN remains discouraging.  According to PEW Research Centre, about 5.5 billion people (77% of the world’s population) were living in countries with high or very high overall levels of restrictions on religion in 2013. CSW has reported a wide variety of FoRB violations from 26 countries including Eritrea, Sudan, Burma, China, Pakistan, Cuba, Iran and Egypt. Violations range from violence, killings, imprisonment and sexual violence to discrimination in employment or education and restrictions on the construction of places of worship. Given this background, it is obvious that the implementation of FoRB for all faiths and none remains on a rocky road.

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Burma’s Election: Winning is Just the Beginning

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Rangoon, Burma

For anyone who has worked on Burma for any length of time, Aung San Suu Kyi’s overwhelming election victory is a cause for hope and celebration. A quarter of a century after winning a mandate in Burma’s last freely contested elections, her party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – has shown that no amount of repression could drive it away. The military-backed government and the current President, former general Thein Sein, appear to have finally heard the voice of the people and pledged to honour the result. It would be very easy to think that our work in Burma was done and that all is well.

The entrenched power of the military

In reality, the military remain extremely powerful and the new government will face many grave challenges. The NLD’s election victory is certainly a step forward but, as Aung San Suu Kyi has said, it is just the beginning.

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Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) – in full

“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”Article 18, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

CSW is a Christian organisation working for religious freedom through advocacy and human rights, in the pursuit of justice.