New Delhi, India, Dec 11, 2019 / 04:01 pm (CNA).- The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is expressing concern about a controversial bill which passed India’s legislature Wednesday enshrining a pathway to citizenship for immigrants that specifically excludes Muslims.
“The [bill] is a dangerous turn in the wrong direction; it runs counter to India’s rich history of secular pluralism and the Indian Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law regardless of faith,” USCIRF said Dec. 9.
“USCIRF fears that the Indian government is creating a religious test for Indian citizenship that would strip citizenship from millions of Muslims.”
USCIRF recommended that should the legislation be signed into law, the United States should consider imposing sanctions on the Indian Home Minister Amit Shah and other leaders.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill would grant Indian citizenship to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis (a Zoroastrian community), and Sikhs who fled Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan before 2015, while leaving out Muslims, Reuters reports.
Muslims make up about 14% of India’s population.
The upper house of India’s parliament began debating the bill Dec. 11, after it had already cleared the lower house. It passed the upper house 125-105 and is set to be signed into law by president Narendra Modi.
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which came into power during 2014, during summer 2018 conducted a citizenship test in one of India’s states that may be expanded nationwide, the New York Times reports.
Under the test, around 2 million of Assam state’s 33 million residents were determined to be illegal immigrants and could face incarceration, even if they have lived in India for generations.
The ruling party has also come under fire for its August decision to strip the semi-autonomous, disputed region of Kashmir, which is majority-Muslim, of its semi-autonomous status and to remove its statehood.
Protests against the bill have intensified, Reuters reports, as violence broke out in the northeast of the country while parliament debated the bill.
Under Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, conditions for religious minorities, including Christians, have deteriorated in recent years.
According to USCIRF's 2019 report, “religious freedom conditions in India continued a downward trend” in 2018.
The commission said India's “history of religious freedom has come under attack in recent years with the growth of exclusionary extremist narratives—including, at times, the government’s allowance and encouragement of mob violence against religious minorities—that have facilitated an egregious and ongoing campaign of violence, intimidation, and harassment against non-Hindu and lower-caste Hindu minorities. Both public and private actors have engaged in this campaign.”
Mob violence against Christians by Hindus has been particularly acute. In August, 40 Catholics were physically or verbally assaulted while on a Marian pilgrimage, as assailants believed to be affiliated with the radical Hindu Munnani group blocked the road and destroyed the pilgrims’ Marian statue.
In September, around 500 armed Hindu extremists attacked a Jesuit mission in the Archdiocese of Ranchi. Armed with sticks, chains, iron bars, knives, and pistols, the mob beat tribal students including two who were seriously injured, and also seriously damaged the school’s facilities.
In May, a Protestant pastor in the central state of Madhya Pradesh has been acquitted of charges held against him under state-level anti-conversion laws.
A group of Hindu nationalists had stormed the church three years ago during a service and began beating and harassing worshipers, ADF International reports.
The police came and arrested the pastor, his wife, and his six-year-old son, stripped them of their clothes, beat them, and kept them detained without bail for three days, finally convicting the family in March of this year of forcing conversion to the Christian faith.
The right to choose one’s own religion is found in Article 25 of the Indian Constitution.
Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal has said numerous mob lynchings of Christians have occurred in which the victims are accused of eating beef or otherwise harming cattle, which are considered sacred in Hinduism.
Violence against Christians in India does not end with lynchings, however. The United Christian Forum and ADF India documented 80 “violent mob attacks” across India in the first quarter of 2019 alone.