For Christians trying to care for the poor in India, there is always a need for more prayer, more hands, and more money. Much of that money comes from donors in other countries. Recently, though, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has tightened regulations on foreign funding to nonprofits, including Christian groups that feed orphans, run hospitals, and educate children.
Since Modi took office in 2014, the Indian government has revoked permission for more than 16,000 nongovernmental organizations to receive foreign funding, using the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA).
“It is deliberately an assault against the nonprofit sector,” said Vijayesh Lal, the general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, “and that includes the churches.”
In one recent round of revocations, six nonprofits lost the license allowing them to receive money from abroad. Four of those were Christian organizations. A search of the FCRA website reveals more than 450 revocations from 2011-2019 of groups with the word church in their name alone.
While the FCRA is not designed specifically to target Christian groups, experts say its cumbersome regulations have been used by the ruling parties in India to stifle political and religious dissidents since the law’s adoption in 1976.
“It has always been used as a tool,” Lal said. “The thought behind it is very clear. They don’t want to encourage dissent. They don’t want to encourage empowerment.”
The law was first passed in a period of Indian history called “the Emergency.” In the midst of economic crisis, suspicions of political corruption, strikes, student protests, and calls for revolution, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government suspended civil liberties and centralized power. One new law allowed the government to check the flow of funds from outside the country.
Since Modi was elected on a platform of Hindu nationalism, the law has been changed and changed again, making it harder for nonprofits to comply and easier for local authorities to target aid groups they don’t like. In late 2020, authorities added nine new rules. One change cut the maximum amount a foreign-funded nonprofit can spend on administrative costs from 50 percent to 20 percent. This is purportedly to fight fraud but places a substantial burden on religious schools, where teacher salaries are considered “administrative overhead.”
“It’s going to be very difficult,” said David Babu, the founder of Sunshine Ministries in Hyderabad. “What can you do with 20 percent?”
Sunshine provides schooling and housing to about 240 students. Eighty percent go on to receive more education after graduating, many of them becoming teachers, police officers, and health care workers.
“These are the kids that are the leaders of tomorrow,” Babu said, “and we believe that when they plant the seed of equality and oneness, things will change.”
Sunshine has 20 staff members, and its main expenditures are salaries and the costs of maintaining buildings and property. The ministry has not yet determined how it can cut administrative costs to maintain its FCRA license.
The latest version of the law also bans “sub-granting,” so FCRA-licensed ministries cannot transfer funds to other FCRA-licensed ministries. This means large nonprofits cannot partner with local churches or ministries in India, allowing them to control the distribution of resources in their communities.
Other Christian groups in the country are concerned about increased oversight and scrutiny from government officials. John Matthew, who leads an organization that works with people infected by HIV, must renew his FCRA license this year.
The law’s recent updates forced him to move all funds to a State Bank of India account. This means he’ll have to answer seven or eight pages of detailed questions that the government didn’t previously ask. While some of the questions seem bureaucratic and banal, Matthew worries his ministry’s fate will depend on the whims of local officials and the Indian government.
“As long as the current government is in place, operating in India will be very difficult,” he said.
Ministries like Matthew’s are living with a lot of uncertainty. Some wonder whether it’s worth it to continue working in India; there are needy people in other places too, after all.
In 2017, Compassion International lost its FCRA license. It was accused of vaguely defined “anti-national activity” and allegedly forcing people to convert to Christianity. Eventually, conflict with Modi’s government forced the $1 billion evangelical ministry out of the country. Its withdrawal meant the end of the child sponsorship program that gave financial support to nearly 150,000 Indian children.
“It’s sort of like surrounding the castle, and rather than attacking the castle, you just starve it out,” said Stephen Oakley, former general counsel for Compassion International. “They’re playing a waiting game with the NGOs and slowly squeezing them out of India.”
According to Oakley, it was Compassion’s anti-poverty program that offended some in Modi’s party. Compassion was ministering to the Dalits, the “untouchables” in India’s caste system, and the evangelical humanitarian aid to uplift the poor threatened the established social hierarchy and stirred up political trouble.
“I can almost understand through their lens,” Oakley said. “I don’t agree with their lens, but I can almost understand how they would see giving hope to a child living in abject poverty as anti-national activity.”
A senior Indian Christian leader, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue for his ministry, said the FCRA laws have been disproportionately applied to Christian ministries and have had a devastating impact on the poor.
“The withdrawal of licenses has left millions of people in India—it’s not an exaggeration, tens of millions of people—without a social help, social net, and taken away employment which the [nonprofit] sector was providing,” he told CT.
Indian Christians lobbying the US government say the FCRA is only a fraction of what they’re concerned about. Persecution of Muslims and Christians is growing, and the national government has “created a culture of impunity for nationwide campaigns of harassment and violence against religious minorities,” according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
In 2019, the commission asked the Trump administration to designate India a “country of particular concern” and impose targeted sanctions. The State Department, led by Mike Pompeo, did not take up the recommendation.
John Prabhudoss, chair of the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations, said he and others hope President Joe Biden’s administration will consider putting diplomatic pressure on the Indian government. But they’re not especially optimistic.
If nothing changes, Christians will continue to do their best to follow the rules and serve those in need. Lal said that while the foreign financial support is critical to helping nonprofits help people in need, “The church is not dependent on FCRA.”
The Evangelical Fellowship of India has been hosting webinars to help Indian ministries and churches understand the FCRA and comply with the changes. The most recent event, held in December, was attended by more than 600 people.
“Whatever the rules are, we must follow them to the letter,” Lal said.
In the meantime, he urged Christians around the world to lobby their governments to speak out about religious freedom in India. “India takes those questions seriously,” he said.
“There is a lot that has to be done. The American church can definitely use its voice to speak out, not only for Indian Christians, but for the welfare of all religious and linguistic minorities in India,” Lal said.
“It is an obligation.”
Luke Scorziell is a reporter and a student at the University of Southern California majoring in journalism.
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