By John N. Kennedy, U.S. Senator
“I believe that the most essential element of our defense of freedom is our insistence on speaking out for the cause of religious liberty. I would like to see this country rededicate itself wholeheartedly to this cause. … We are our brothers’ keepers, all of us.” President Ronald Reagan
WASHINGTON (LBM) — If you’ve seen the Oscar-winning movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” you’ve had just a glimpse of the poverty that exists in India.
Mumbai, the largest city in the country, is home to one of the world’s largest slums, the Dharavi district, which alone has a million residents eking out an existence in squalid overcrowded conditions. Some reports estimate up to 60 percent of the city’s 21 million citizens live in such dire circumstances.
Unfortunately, such human tragedy is not problematic just for Mumbai. Instead, roughly eight percent of India’s people live in slums and about one-sixth of the 1.31 billion citizens are impoverished, earning less than $1.90 a day.
Religious and humanitarian organizations from around the world have been responding generously over the years, contributing time and money to help. For example, in the United States large numbers of Christians take time from school or work to travel to India, not for a five-star vacation, but to be the hands and feet of Jesus. They go on missions of compassion and charity, living out the Gospel as they help minister to the roughly 215 million people of India who live below the poverty line.
Indeed, it was the haunting images of poverty – families living on the street, children abandoned by their widowed mothers and people so starved for food that their ribs protruded – that drew Compassion International to India in the late 1960s. This organization started by helping 400 children and by 2016 was providing aid to 145,000 young ones, giving food, clean water and educational opportunities to this country’s most vulnerable victims of poverty.
Unfortunately for these children, the Indian government is using a broad provision of law to disallow the transfer of funds into the country for groups it opposes, many on religious grounds, thus coercing numerous worthwhile non-governmental organizations out of India. Compassion International is one of these ousted entities, forced to leave after nearly 50 years of serving India’s poor.
News reports indicate something on the order of 11,000 nongovernmental organizations have been impacted, causing reverberations across India in areas ranging from children’s vaccinations to environmental causes.
Moreover, carrying the Gospel to India has come under attack as well, resulting from that country’s crackdown on citizens’ freedom of religious exercise and its leaders’ obvious hostility to Christianity. Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board recently named India among countries of concern with respect to religious liberty because of “on-going battles” there regarding “the right to convert to Christianity.”
Since 1950, when it became a republic, India has enjoyed the status of being the world’s largest democracy. So its recent trend of oppressing basic rights – and freedom of religion is a fundamental human right — is deeply troubling.
Consequently, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the United States several weeks ago, I asked President Trump to bring up this critical issue.
Our country and India have a long-standing relationship and I, along with several of my colleagues, encouraged the president to reiterate the importance of religious liberty in India, asking him to champion the cause for religious and humanitarian organizations which are providing food and healthcare to those in India who otherwise would starve and suffer sickness.
Equally important, freedom of conscience, the right to believe and practice one’s spiritual convictions, is fundamental to individual liberty and autonomy.
We must make religious freedom a top foreign policy priority, and I entreat the Trump Administration to join me in calling for religious freedom around the world, and especially at this time, in India.
John Neely Kennedy is the junior United States Senator from Louisiana, serving since 2017. He and his wife Becky are founding members of North Cross United Methodist Church, and, they and their son Preston live in Madisonville, Louisiana.