DELHI, INDIA - MARCH 20: A Indian Muslim woman wearing a protective mask leaves after attending congregational Friday prayers at the historic Jama Masjid (Grand Mosque) amid the government imposing restriction on assembly of more than 20 people over the coranavirus threat, on March 20, 2020 in Delhi, India. The number of coronavirus cases continues to rise with a Bollywood singer-actor testing positive for the deadly virus on Friday. As the number of cases crossed 200, the provincial government in the national capital Delhi ordered the closure of shopping malls but allowed shops selling daily essentials and medicines in these malls. In Maharashtra which has seen over 59 cases and hosts the economic capital Mumbai, the provincial government ordered a partial lockdown asking private offices in many cities to shut and calling for 25% attendance in government offices. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 death toll in India rose to 5 on Friday with the death of an Italian tourist, who along with his wife had tested positive for the virus in pink city, Jiapur. (Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

US warns of virus scapegoating in India, Pakistan

The United States on Thursday (15) voiced alarm over the targeting of religious minorities in both India and Pakistan, warning against a search for internal scapegoats during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a rare statement of US concern over India, Sam Brownback, the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, pointed to both physical and online attacks against Muslims.

“In India, we’ve seen reports of unfortunate COVID-related rhetoric and harassment, particularly against the Muslim community, exacerbated by fake news reports — misinformation — being shared via social media,” he told reporters.

He did not blame the government, saying he was “encouraged” by public statements, including a call by prime minister Narendra Modi for unity.

Fact-checkers by AFP have debunked hundreds of social media posts in India that targeted Muslims, including dubious videos that showed members of the minority licking fruit for sale.

Hundreds of thousands of online posts have used the hashtag #CoronaJihad, some of which have been shared by members of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which advises but does not set government policy, last month said that India should be put on a blacklist due to its “dramatic” downturn in religious freedom under Modi.

New Delhi sharply rejected the criticism and it is highly unlikely that the State Department would act against India, an increasingly close ally of the United States.

Brownback also voiced concern about India’s historic rival Pakistan, whose new commission on religious minorities does not include the Ahmadi sect, which has faced years of deadly violence.

“I really think they missed an opportunity by pulling off the Ahmadi Muslim that was nominated to be on it,” Brownback said.

“I think their wilting to the public pressure really sends a bad signal,” he said.

Referring to the pandemic, Brownback said: “People are tense anyway, and then they look for a scapegoat, and then unfortunately you get somebody that gives them one and you’re off at the races.”

Pakistan legally declares Ahmadis to be non-Muslims over their belief in a prophet after Mohammed, a departure from orthodox Islam.