By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI, March 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Colorado-based Christian charity said on Friday it was ending its almost half-a-century-long operations in India after authorities restricted its funding channels over suspicions it supported religious conversions in the Hindu-majority country.
Compassion International (CI) is one of thousands of charities in India whose ability to receive or donate foreign funds has been impaired since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-wing nationalist party took power almost three years ago.
Authorities accuse the charities of violations - ranging from not disclosing where donations are being spent to engaging in "anti-national" activities. The charities say the crackdown is aimed at stifling dissent and curbing minority freedoms.
CI's Media Relations Officer Becca Bishop said Indian officials did not formally give any reason for restricting funds for its child poverty alleviation work, but believed it was being targeted for being a Christian organisation.
"We do believe that Compassion and other Christian charities are being singled out because of our faith, and that the Indian government is trying to limit the expansion of Christianity in India," said Bishop.
The charity, she added, works with children of all backgrounds and faiths around the world, and it does not require any child to become a Christian in order to receive benefits.
Compassion International set up in India in 1968 and donates $45 million annually to a network of almost 590 church charities which sponsor over 147,000 children from impoverished rural communities. It employs almost 130 staff across the country.
WIDER CHARITY CRACKDOWN
Over 10,000 charities in India have had their licenses to receive or donate foreign funds cancelled or suspended since 2014, hampering their ability to work in areas ranging from housing and education to health and sanitation.
Groups such as Greenpeace which campaigns against coal mining, Lawyers Collective which works on sexual minority rights, and the Sabrang Trust run by a human rights activist and a Modi critic, have all had their licenses suspended.
The government says they are violating the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) - a law under which civil society groups who receive overseas funds are regulated.
Many have not submitted their annual financial statements, while others are using money to engage in "activities against the national interest," say home ministry officials.
The move has sparked criticism both at home and abroad.
U.N. experts in July last year said New Delhi was using the FCRA to stymie critics. The FCRA was "overly broad", they said, and activities deemed as being against of the state were vague.
A U.S. state department official on Wednesday also voiced concern over CI's closure. While charities must obey local laws, he said, the reason for shutting them down should be made "transparent and clear."
"When we see a group like Compassion International, which we believe is working and doing important work in India is closed down, then it's a matter of concern," Mark Toner, a U.S. State Department spokesman, told a news conference, according to a transcript.
India on Thursday responded by saying charities must follow the law. "The whole matter here is a matter of law enforcement and following the laid-down laws of the country," Foreign Ministry Spokesman Gopal Baglay told a news conference.
CI's Bishop said without the ability to send funds they would be unable to operate after March 15.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)