The US has seen unfortunate reports of COVID-19 related “rhetoric and harassment” against the Muslim community in India, a top American diplomat has said, asserting that it has been exacerbated by fake news and misinformation shared on social media.
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, however, also said that the US was encouraged by the statements from senior Indian officials calling for unity amidst the unprecedented spread of the pandemic.
Brownback was briefing reporters on Thursday on the impact of COVID-19 on religious minorities throughout the world.
“In India, we’ve seen reports of unfortunate COVID-related rhetoric and harassment, particularly against the Muslim community. This has been exacerbated by fake news reports, misinformation being shared via social media. There have also been instances of Muslims being attacked for allegedly spreading the coronavirus,” Brownback said during a conference call.
“Now, I’ve been encouraged and we’ve been encouraged by statements from senior Indian officials really urging a unity, and noting the prime minister stated even that COVID-19 does not see religion, language, or borders, which is certainly true,” said the US official on international religious freedom.
India has rejected as “propaganda” some social media posts alleging harassment of Muslims in the country for spreading the coronavirus.
“Much of what you see is propaganda by interested parties. Stray tweets can not be used to characterise our bilateral ties with these countries,” External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said last month.
His statement had come in the wake of angry reactions on Twitter by leading citizens and rights activists from various Arab countries alleging that Muslims were being blamed for spreading COVID-19 in India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also criticised any form of discrimination, saying the COVID-19 pandemic affects everyone equally.
“COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or border before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood,” he said in a post on LinkedIn last month.
Modi’s remarks came in the backdrop of a section of right wing organisations frequently raking up the issue of Tablighi Jamaat members being responsible for a large number of COVID-19 infections in India.
About 30 per cent of the total infections in India has been attributed to the fallout of a Tablighi Jamaat meet held in New Delhi in March.
Turning to the plight of the religious minorities in other parts of the world, Brownback said it was a “tough situation” for them in Pakistan, China and Sri Lanka.
“It’s a tough situation for a lot of religious minorities in various places around the world,” he said, adding that the problems tend to fall into about five categories.
One is just a straight government repression that some governments are using this to further repress the religious minorities. Second is just discrimination in the health care sector, wherein governments deny health care to some of the religious minorities in various places, he said.
A third is in the kind of hoaxes and scapegoating category, where some of the religious minorities are scapegoated, targeted. There is fake news being put out that they are the reason for the spread of the COVID-19 virus in their country.
Fourth is online inflammatory speech, where actors are putting out disinformation campaigns that are targeting particularly religious minority groups. And then, a final category is this growth of misuse of technology to further repress, discriminate, or surveil that is outside of really the scope of the crisis, he said.
In Pakistan, he referred to the Christian sanitation workers.
“They are the ones that get the jobs of sweepers and sanitation workers. And now, as the sanitation work includes collecting contaminated waste from hospital quarantine wards across the country, these workers must not be neglected as the government works to increase distribution of personal protective equipment for front line workers. You can’t single out and isolate this religious minority that’s the Christian workers that are the sanitation workers,” he said.
“In China, we’re seeing a couple of particular faces of this taking place in the religious persecution category in Tibet, towards the Tibetans,” Brownback said.
Even during the strictest parts of the lockdown, China was conducting a campaign to send a million police to 10 million homes in Tibet to further restrict the Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhism, even during the pandemic.
“We’re seeing in Uighur Muslims, they’re facing increase of vulnerabilities as they’re being forced to work despite coronavirus risk, and they’re being further exposed,” he said.
Brownback said that in Sri Lanka, families of several Muslims who have died from COVID-19 were forced to have them cremated as per the government policy, which is not based on the WHO guidelines and is against their religious beliefs.
The government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has also sparked anti-Muslim sentiment in some quarters, he said.
The State Department would soon put out its report on international religious freedom, he said.
The report will start the time clock on the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s ultimate determinations on Countries of Particular Concern or watch list countries. A recent recommendation by US Commission on International Religious Freedom would be noted and has been noted as well, he added.