In 1998, Congress created the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Its mandate was to “monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad.”
Part of this monitoring involves visits to the countries where violations of religious freedom are alleged to have occurred.
That’s why the Commission planned to visit India in response to reports about the killing of Christians in the Indian state of Orissa. The killings were part of a larger campaign of violence and intimidation that has left 100 people dead and thousands of Christians homeless.
As the word “planned” suggests, the Commission never traveled to India. The Indian government never issued the required visas and hasn’t explained why. This gives India the dubious distinction of being the only democracy to have refused a visit by the Commission.
While there has been no official explanation, the reasons for the refusal are well known, at least in India. Hindu nationalists had demanded that the Commission not be allowed to visit India. One leader called the Commission an “intrusive mechanism . . . interfering with the internal affairs of India.”
One government official told the Times of India that the visit “would have raised hackles in India.”
Fear of raised hackles is unworthy of a country that takes pride in being the world’s largest democracy. Respecting human rights, after all, requires raising the hackles of those violating those rights.
The most shameful performance, however, wasn’t the Indian government’s but, instead, the American media’s. Terry Mattingly of the Washington Journalism Center noted that “all of the coverage” of what he calls this “amazing, even stunning news” is “on the other side of the world.”
As if to emphasize this point, the details quoted in this commentary and Mattingly’s blog post are from Baptist Press. If Christians were not following the story, few if any Americans would know that their government was snubbed on a matter of religious freedom and human rights by an ally.
It is difficult to imagine a clearer example of what Mattingly calls the “blind spot” of the media when it comes to religion. In the recent book of the same name, Mattingly and other writers show how this “blind spot” causes the media to get important stories wrong or, in cases like this one, miss the story altogether.
In a profession where “diversity” borders on an obsession, religion is the exception. People who “identify with the lives of believers” and “treat religion with respect” and, when warranted, skepticism, are rare in our newsrooms. In the absence of such people, religion is often viewed through the lens of politics, which does a disservice to both the subject of the stories and to the readers.
That’s why stories about “human-rights issues linked to religion” are ignored by the media—and why they wind up in what Mattingly calls that strange nowhere land called “conservative news.”
And whether the media’s ignorance of religion is willful or not, it remains ignorance. And that should raise all our hackles, as should India’s intransigence.