Compassion International, a Christian non-governmental organization (NGO) that aids 145,000 impoverished Indian children, has only weeks left in the country unless officials give it a reprieve.
“We’ve simply run out of funds,” Stephen Oakley, the group’s senior vice president and general counsel, told the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on Dec 6.
Compassion employs 6,000 workers in India who provide aid to children living in extreme poverty. It has worked in India since 1968 and is the largest humanitarian presence in the second most populated country in the world – providing $50 million in annual relief funds. But India is cracking down on foreign NGOs based on fears that groups are using humanitarian work to mask evangelization efforts. Those fears have prompted the government to block the inflow of relief dollars.
So far, Indian officials have ignored pleas from U.S. lawmakers.
“We have spent nine months and hundreds of hours dealing with the Indian bureaucracy on this, and it looks like the bureaucracy is trying to run out the clock,” House Foreign Affairs chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., said. “This is not a hearing that the committee expected to be holding.”
Oakley said Compassion has sought legal counsel to ensure it’s in good standing with the Indian government, but a complete breakdown in communication has exacerbated the situation.
India is the world’s largest democracy, with a population of 1.25 billion. But it also suffers from extreme poverty. More than 100 million children live without access to proper nutrition or other basic needs. The government does not have well-established anti-poverty programs and relies on foreign aid groups for humanitarian relief.
Oakley said Compassion is working with other NGOs to help take over relief work in the country should it have to shut down. But he expects more than 80 percent of the 145,000 children under Compassion’s care to fall through the cracks.
India screens foreign aid groups through its Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). In 2011, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs revised the law, leaving it up to broad interpretation.
The revised FCRA now states the government can block funds “for any activities detrimental to the national interest.”
“One of the problems with the FCRA is that the Indian government has adopted a very wide interpretation of what is anti-national,” said Irfan Nooruddin, Georgetown University’s India Initiative director. “Anything that the government doesn’t agree with is now anti-national. There is no end in sight for them.”
India is one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world. It is predominately Hindu, but also is home to more than 130 million Muslims and more than 50 million Christians. Nooruddin said this issue should be of great concern to the United States because it’s an attack on religious liberty.
Some lawmakers fear the consequences of berating the Indian government over its domestic policy.
“When I think about where we are in the U.S.-India relationship in a broad scope, it is really at a peak right now,” said Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., the only Indian-American member of Congress. “That’s one of my concerns with how this issue is resolved.”
Most of Compassion’s work deals with meeting physical needs, and only 4 percent of its resources extend to help children with moral and spiritual development. Oakley said the Indian government revoked the organization’s FCRA license because it identified several “black sheep” within Compassion who were sharing the gospel with local children. Government officials refuse to share that information with Compassion’s leaders.
Compassion isn’t alone in its situation with the Indian government. Nooruddin said 11,500 other NGOs, both secular and faith-based, have lost their FCRA licenses in the last several years.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., called the situation an affront to religious freedom and said the United States should take it seriously.
“The threat on Compassion is indicative of what is happening to NGOs around the world,” he said. “The United States has the moral duty, our government, to put a tourniquet with the greatest extent possible on this deterioration [of religious freedom].”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Evan Wilt writes for WORLD News Service, a division of WORLD Magazine, worldmag.com, based in Asheville. Used with permission.)