NEW DELHI —
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is vowing to protect complete religious freedom in his country. The assurance comes amid criticism that his government has been slow in responding to a spate of attacks on Christian institutions and thwart efforts by hardline affiliate Hindu groups to convert religious minority groups.
Speaking at an event organized by the Christian community in New Delhi to celebrate the beatification of two Indians, Prime Minister Narendra Modi strongly condemned violence targeting religious minorities and vowed to protect them.
“My government will act strongly in this regard. With this commitment, I appeal to all religious groups to act with restraint, mutual respect and tolerance in the true spirit of this ancient nation,” he said.
Modi’s comments were seen as a bid to reassure religious minorities amid criticism that his government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has not done enough to stem religious tensions that have surfaced since it came to power last May.
India is predominantly Hindu, but has 160 million Muslims and a small proportion of Christians.
In recent weeks there have been five attacks on churches in New Delhi, described as vandalism and arson attacks. That led to community concerns about a deliberate campaign of violence and intimidation. Community leaders led a protest saying they feel unsafe.
Controversy has also been triggered by a series of religious conversion ceremonies sponsored by hardline Hindu groups in recent months to “welcome back” hundreds of Muslims and Christians into Hinduism. Modi has been sharply criticized for remaining silent on the issue. His slow response has also raised concerns about the Hindu nationalist leader’s ability to control extremist Hindu groups.
Last month, during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to India, Obama sounded a warning note, saying the country’s success depends on not splintering along religious lines.
But on Tuesday, the Indian leader spoke up forcefully for religious freedom, saying India will remain secular.
“My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion," said Modi. "Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions. Equal respect for all religions must be in the DNA of every Indian. Unity strengthens us, division weakens us.”
Prime Minister Modi’s appearance at the event organized by the Christian community was seen as a bid to reach out to minorities.
It followed a massive defeat his party suffered in local elections in Delhi. Some analysts have said the rise of controversial religious issues has eroded support for his party, which had promised to pursue an agenda of development.
Modi Tuesday again reiterated his commitment to development.