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U.S. religious freedom watchdog recommends blacklisting India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) stands with U.S. President Donald J. Trump after addressing the media in New Delhi, India, on Feb. 25. Photo by Harish Tyagi/EPA-EFE
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) stands with U.S. President Donald J. Trump after addressing the media in New Delhi, India, on Feb. 25. Photo by Harish Tyagi/EPA-EFE

April 29 (UPI) -- Religious freedom in India sharply declined last year under the strengthened leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a U.S. religious freedom watchdog said, recommending the United States add it to its list of countries of greatest concern.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which is an independent, bipartisan government commission, released its annual report Tuesday, urging the Trump administration to designate U.S.-ally India as a Country of Particular Concern, putting its name beside the likes of North Korea, China and Iran.

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The report explained that Modi used his parliamentary majority, which he gained last May with a landslide victory that secured him another five-year term, to enact the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act that violates religious freedoms, specifically that of Muslims.

The law expedites citizenship for non-Muslim migrants, exposing Muslims in India to statelessness, deportation or prolonged detention, the report said.

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The government's actions, the report said, "created a culture of impunity for nationwide campaigns of harassment and violence against religious minorities."

"During 2019, discriminatory policies, inflammatory rhetoric and tolerance for violence against minorities at the national, state and local level increased the climate of fear among non-Hindu communities," the report said, adding that this downward trajectory continued into 2020 with mobs attacking Muslim neighborhoods with police failing to stop the assaults, resulting in at least 50 deaths.

Advocacy group the Indian American Muslim Council said it "welcomed" the report and its criticism as "painfully necessary, given the escalating level of persecution of minorities."

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"India being categorized as a top violator of religious freedoms while unfortunate is expected and justified," IAMC President Ahsan Khan said in a statement. "We hope this report, as well as recent concerns expressed by other countries, mark a turning point in the treatment of religious minorities as well as the caste oppressed in India."

The report also recommends Nigeria, Russia, Syria and Vietnam to be added to the list of countries of particular concern while moving Uzbekistan and Sudan from the bottom designation to the U.S Department of State's Special Watch List.

In December, the State Department preemptively downgraded Sudan to its watch list following steps the country has taken after the ousting of former dictator President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019.

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The report detailed the lengths the ruling joint civilian-military transitional government has taken, including no longer identifying Islam as the primary source of law and including a provision to ensure the freedom of belief and worship.

"While much work remains to extend full religious freedom to all Sundanese -- including repealing apostasy and blasphemy laws -- enough positive change has come to the country that ... USCIRF is now recommending Sudan for the U.S. Department of State's Special Watch List," it said.

The commission has also recommended the State Department add 11 countries to the watch list, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Turkey.

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Six non-state actors were also recommended to be designated as Entities of Particular Concern, five of which the State Department did so in December.

"We commend the administration for continuing to prioritize international religious freedom in 2019, including dedicating a significant amount of U.S. funding to protect places of worship and religious sites globally," USCIRF Vice Chair Gayle Manchin said in a statement.

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