Compassion International is, beyond any doubt, a distinctly Christian charitable enterprise. Its motto, after all, is, “Releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name.”
Founded in 1952 by an American Evangelical named Everett Swanson to help war orphans in South Korea, today the group is the largest child sponsorship NGO in the world. It promotes long-term development of 1.9 million children living in extreme poverty in 26 nations around the world, providing a mix of food and medical care as well as training and education.
Despite its Christian ethos, Compassion International serves members of all faiths, and does not require attendance at religious services or any other form of proselytism as a condition of help.
There’s empirical evidence its programs work. A 2013 study published by the Journal of Political Economy showed that sponsorship of children through Compassion International resulted in significantly higher rates of completing school and improved adult employment outcomes.
In India, Compassion International has been active since 1968. Today, it serves 145,000 children, making it the largest single provider of aid to at-risk children in India, and it’s also the largest importer of humanitarian currency into the country.
Why, then, one might wonder, has Compassion International been effectively blacklisted by the Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, placed on a “watch list” that cancels its permission to transfer funds into the country without prior permission of the Ministry of Home Affairs?
It’s not the only NGO to feel the sting of government disapproval. Others include Mercy Corps, the National Endowment for Democracy and George Soros’s Open Society Foundations.
To some extent, all this is the result of a rising tide of Indian nationalism fueled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which sometimes translates into suspiciousness of outside influences of any sort.
In the case of Compassion International, however, there’s an extra element: The fact that it’s Christian, at a time when “Indian nationalism” often includes strong doses of militant Hindu radicalism, means trouble for the country’s religious minorities, especially Christians and Muslims.
On Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on the situation, convened by Republican Ed Royce of California and Democrat Eliot Engel of New York.
Stephen Oakley, General Counsel for Compassion International, said the decision to put the group on a watch list is merely the latest twist in what’s been at least a three-year pattern of harassment and intimidation, featuring massive out-of-the-blue tax bills, revoked permissions for operations, and various forms of investigations.
“We’re just weeks away from permanently withdrawing,” Oakley said, unless the situation changes.
“What we’re experiencing is an unprecedented, highly coordinated, deliberate and systematic attack intended to drive us out,” he said, adding that in conversations with other faith-based and humanitarian groups, many report the same pressure.
“These are attacks under the guise of regulatory compliance,” Oakley said.
Why is it happening?
“The government wrongly believes that we’re using humanitarian efforts to convert Indians to Christianity,” he said, but insisting that’s a distraction: “This is religious discrimination, pure and simple.”
Most tragic of all, Oakley said, is that Modi and the BJP-led government appear to be scoring political points on the back of the poorest in their country, since, Oakley explained, “no plan or provision at all has been made to care for these children when we depart.”
It’s not just Oakley who sees an anti-Christian subtext to the crackdown. The day before the House hearing, the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations issued a statement echoing the diagnosis.
“We are witnessing unprecedented level of hostilities from government officials under Modi’s leadership,” the statement said.
“The BJP government under Modi, which is sympathetic to Hindu radical groups, is determined to inflict damage to Christian organizations,” it said. “More than a thousand licenses and permits have been withdrawn in the past year alone, citing one or the other technical reason. In almost all these cases, the government’s paranoia over imagined conversion of people to Christianity seems to be the root cause.”
To be clear, bureaucratic harassment is hardly the only form of anti-Christian animus in India.
Advocacy groups have recorded an average of one incident of physical violence against Christian targets every other day for the last decade or so, and the Kandhamal area of eastern India was the site of the most barbaric anti-Christian pogrom of the early 21st century, a days-long orgy of violence that left more than 100 poor and mostly illiterate Christians dead and 50,000 more taking refuge in a nearby forest.
One of the persistent myths about anti-Christian persecution today is that it’s restricted mostly to the Middle East and carried out almost entirely by Muslim radicals. As India chillingly illustrates, that just ain’t so.
The good news is that in India, the prospects of doing something about it seem more plausible.
For one thing, India is a vibrant democracy with strong currents of resistance to what’s known as “saffronisation,” meaning using the power of the state to impose Hindu values, beliefs and practices. Americans and others concerned with religious liberty would do well to encourage those forces.
For another, India is also a rising global power that wants to be vitally engaged in economic and political life. Attaching real consequences, such as economic sanctions, to the government’s apparent refusal to defend its religious minorities could move the needle.
The fact that Modi’s government has invited Pope Francis to visit in 2017 is one sign of its desire to be seen as a responsible global player, and the trip also affords the pontiff to engage in some quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy to defend the rights of the country’s estimated 30 million Christians, of whom roughly half are Catholic.
In the end, what the Compassion International case comes down to is this: Is it acceptable for a state to effectively eradicate any charitable group from serving within its borders, no matter how much good it does, simply because its faith affiliation is out of favor?
One would hope, especially if rhetoric about a “culture of human rights” is to mean anything, that the answer is no.