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Discuss religious freedom with Dr Singh, Bush told

September 23, 2008 02:12 IST

The Congressionally-mandated United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan, federal agency that advises both the Administration and US lawmakers, has called on President George W Bush to raise pressing concerns about religious freedom in India with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he hosts the latter at the White House Oval office on September 25 late afternoon and then for an early dinner.

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In a missive to Bush, USCIRF chair Felice D Gaer urged him to 'ask Prime Minister Singh to ensure the immediate security of Indian citizens -- security that is undermined by recurrent attacks on religious minorities and communities.'

She argued that 'if India is to exercise global leadership as the largest and perhaps most pluralistic democracy in the world, Prime Minister Singh should demonstrate his government's commitment to uphold the basic human rights obligations to which it has agreed, including the protection of religious minorities.'

'Today,' Gaer said in the USCIRF letter, 'According to estimates, thousands of Christians in the eastern state of Orissa are in hiding in jungles and refugee camps as mobs associated with Hindu nationalist organizations continue a three-week long series of acts of violence and arson directed against Christian-owned properties, including churches.'

It informed Bush, 'These attacks were sparked by the killings last month of a local Hindu leader, Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati and four members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist organization. A Maoist group claimed responsibility in a statement released shortly after the killings occurred, but the VHP has blamed Christians for the deaths -- blame that quickly led to retaliatory violence against communities with Christian populations. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has condemned both the killings of the Hindu Representatives and the violence that has followed.'

Gaer wrote that 'the current violence in Orissa represents the second major outbreak of religious violence in Orissa since December, and is estimated to have killed at least 26 individuals, and destroyed about 3,000 Christian homes and 134 places of worship. There are also new reports of attacks against Christians and church properties in several southern states, including Karnataka and Kerala.'

'Last December, both Hindu and Christians in Orissa were killed in mass violence, accompanied by accusations and counter-accusations as to which group initiated the violence.'

Gaer complained in the letter that 'the Indian government's response to the egregious violence in Orissa remains inadequate,' and alleged that 'when it was quickly evident that Orissa state police were unable to contain the escalating violence in December 2007 and during the current riots, the central government offered assistance at a sluggish rate.'

She said, 'The central government has also yet to commit to a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation in the current Orissa violence.'

'Our Commission urges the central government and the National Human Rights Commission and National Commission on Minorities to continue to investigate the violence, issue reports on the status of their investigations, and take further appropriate measures to address the situation, including ensuring that perpetrators of the violence are brought to account,' Gaer said, and added: 'In our view, the severity and extent of these attacks warrant a national-level investigation and response.'

It acknowledged and appreciated Dr Singh's 'pledge to offer urgently-needed assistance packages to survivors of the communal riots' in Orissa, but said, 'post-riot humanitarian aid does not obscure the need for both the Orissa state and Indian central government to take action to address persistent sectarian tensions in Orissa, and to prevent further eruptions of violence.'

Gaer reiterated that USCIRF's request that Bush 'convey these concerns to the Prime Minister.'

She also went on to argue that 'Our Commission does not believe that widespread, violent rioting is an unavoidable by-product of a pluralistic society,' and said, 'The US government can and should urge the Indian central government to make more vigorous and effective efforts to stem violence against religious minority communities.'

'This includes fulfilling a 2004 pledge to criminalize inter-religious violence, and engaging in the preparation and training necessary to ensure that law enforcement officials can quell outbreaks of communal violence effectively. State government must be held accountable for violence and other unlawful acts that occur in their states,' Gaer wrote.

The letter said, 'The tentative, halting response of India's central government to the current religious violence in Orissa and the ongoing lack of justice for the victims of the Gujarat riots of 2002 enhance the uncertainty and insecurity facing minorities. India has also already been the victim of so much terrorism on its soil, most recently with the bombings in Delhi this past weekend, linked to Islamic extremists. Both our countries are joined in the battle against elements of extremism originating from religious communities.'

Gaer implored Bush that 'you are in the unique position to be able to communicate to the Prime Minister the urgency of employing prompt and effective preventive means to quell the ongoing communal violence, and insuring accountability of the perpetrators.'

'At stake is the security and success of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual society of more than a billion people that shares the democratic values of the United States and boasts the vibrant representation of all the world's major religions.'

Gaer also went on the inform Bush that 'India is the birthplace of Buddhism, the current home to the Tibetan government in exile and even the small Jewish population has lived without persecution,' and added, 'In this majority Hindu country with one of the world's largest Muslim populations,' Dr Singh himself is a Sikh and the national governing alliance is headed by Sonia Gandhi, a Catholic.

Thus, she continued to urge Bush to bring to Dr Singh's attention that 'against this pluralistic backdrop, religious violence in Gujarat, Orissa and elsewhere, is particularly unacceptable.'

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC