Why is Compassion International closing its doors (for now) in India?
That was the question at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which explored some of the themes in my post this week that ran under the headline, "Compassion International and India: The New York Times leaves a UN-shaped hole." I would urge you to click here and read the original Times piece on this topic.
Does the Times piece tell us why Compassion is leaving India? Well, it does and it doesn't. And that is where things get complicated, for readers and listeners who have never worked in a newsroom.
Patience please, as we try to walk through this.
You see, there is evidence in this important Times piece that various officials in India are saying different things. The evidence offered can be interpreted in a number of different ways and it's pretty obvious that the Times team was asking questions that the authorities in the Bharatiya Janata Party didn't want to address. So, as public officials often do, they declined to answer questions.
So what do we know? Let's look at four different options.
(I) At one point, it appears that Compassion is being pushed out because of accusations that its work led to people converting to Christianity. The charity, to use Times language, was suspected of "engaging in religious conversion."
(II) However, at another another point, Compassion officials deny accusations that they are -- again, this is a Times paraphrase -- "funding religious conversions." Now, what does that mean? As I note in the podcast, that could mean that government officials are accusing the charity and missions group of funding programs:
(a) In which they pay people (think "rice Christians") in India -- with money, food, school funds, etc. -- to convert to Christianity.
(b) In which people in India (including Hindus and Muslims who are receiving aid from Compassion) are exposed to Christian messages and have the opportunity, through contacts with local Christian churches and ministries, to convert to the faith. This is basically the same thing as (I), mentioned above.
(III) Meanwhile, there is also a Los Angeles Times story on this topic that claims that Compassion International workers are being accused of "secretly converting children to Christianity." I guess that could be (I) or (II), only done in secret.
The implication is that Compassion workers do this in secret because it is illegal for conversions to take place in broad daylight. Right?
(IV) Wait, there is another wrinkle here. In the New York Times story there is a quote -- again, a paraphrase -- in which an anonymous Foreign Ministry official claims that Compassion partners (local churches and ministries) were being accused of "violating Indian law by engaging in religious activities."
What does that mean? Churches in India cannot engage in "religious activities"?
Yes, gets confusing. However, the goal is to figure out what is actually happening and describe it as clearly as possible (which is hard when it appears that state officials were not willing to go on the record).
So let's ask another question, a really big question: Is public evangelism now illegal in India?
Ah, but that leads to yet another question: Maybe evangelism is illegal when done by foreigners, using foreign funds? But Compassion works with local churches and ministries. Thus, one needs to ask if evangelism is now illegal in India even when the work is done by local Christians (a faith that has been in India for many centuries, even to the time of the early apostles). Native Christians can do safe, inside-the-sanctuary church things but they cannot do evangelism that leads to conversions?
Or maybe seeking conversions is illegal for some people and not others? Our own Ira "Global Wire" Rifkin emailed me to note that government officials do not object if people convert to Buddhism (as opposed to Christianity or Islam) because they view Buddhism as a native faith. By the say, St. Thomas is believed to have died in India about 70 A.D.
Meanwhile, journalists should note that Article 18 remains in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and India remains in the United Nations (along with other nations that struggle with Article 18) That's the section of the Universal Declaration (to quote it once again) that says:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
I could continue, but I think I've made my point. There is a lot of journalism work that still needs to be done if readers are going to be given a chance to understand what is happening in India.
Want yet another complication?
There is evidence that the BJP is simply cracking down on foreign-funded efforts that do all kinds of work that the party finds unacceptable. That Los Angeles Times article that I mentioned earlier focuses on officials in India attacking the work of Navsarjan, an organization (with some funding from Unitarian Universalists in America) dedicated to defending the rights of Dalits (once called "untouchables") on the lowest level of India's outlawed caste system.
Hey, even the environmental group Greenpeace was briefly on the list of foreign groups being pushed out of India.
So there is more to this than religion. However, in a nation with centuries of missionary history, changes in the status of religious freedom really matter.
So did the New York Times team probe any of these specific questions, which grow out of the reporting work in their original piece? We don't know. Maybe. Maybe not. We don't know what questions were asked, with state officials refusing to answer.
But we do know that this news story has legs.
Why? Because the Times and important voices inside India say so. Note this passage in a new story, referencing a powerful Hindu movement there:
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ... took the rare step of rebutting Compassion International’s account of a back-channel negotiation with a representative in the United States, describing it as “unfair and totally false.” ...
The statement went on to condemn a recent New York Times article as “an attempt by N.Y.T. to malign the image of R.S.S.”
Charities with religious affiliations, of which Compassion International is the largest, make up more than half of the top 15 donors to India.
Stay tuned. And, as always, enjoy the podcast.