Several ISKCON leaders participated in the Hindu Forum of Europe’s General Assembly meetings at Gitananda Ashram near Savona, Northern Italy on July 3rd and 4th this summer.
These included ISKCON communications’ European director Mahaprabhu Das, ISKCON Villa Vrindavana temple president Parabhakti Das from Italy, and ISKCON Hungary Communications representative Madhupati Das.
Their attendance is no surprise, as ISKCON was instrumental in the 2007 founding of the Hindu Forum of Europe (HFE), an umbrella organization that represents Hindu communities throughout Europe and lobbies for religious freedom and Hindu rights.
Mahaprabhu Das is the HFE’s secretary in Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union, while Parabhakti is the representative for the Italian Confederation for Krishna Consciousness, the only directly ISKCON organization in the HFE.
The other organizations in the HFE are the Hindu Forum of Belgium, the Hindu Forum of Britain, the Hindu Council of Holland, and the Italian Hindu Union. ISKCON has also helped establish several of these.
As well as representatives of these national organizations, the General Assembly of the HFE was attended by around forty HFE representatives from the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, France, Germany, and Hungary.
The Assembly began with a welcome from the Mayor of Altare, the local municipality, after which HFE representatives presented reports on the state of human rights and Hindus’ freedom of religion throughout Europe.
“We’re trying to make sure that Hinduism is considered an official religion in EU countries, not an obscure sect,” says HFE President Radj Bhondoe. “So far it’s only officially recognized in three EU countries: the Netherlands, the UK and recently Italy. So there’s a lot of work to do.”
Bhondoe explains in more detail: “In Brussels, for example, there has been a very long debate with the government to accept Hindus as one of the major faiths in Belgium,” he says. “They just recently accepted Islam, but not Hinduism yet. That means that Hindu priests [including ISKCON priests] cannot offer counsel at Belgian prisons, hospitals, or in the defense forces, and do not get invited to official government functions. We are having the same debate in France.”
ISKCON Villa Vrindavana Temple President Parabhakti Das (facing camera) speaks with a fellow HFE representative
After the presentation, participants attended the arati ceremony at the Gitananda Ashram temple, took lunch together, and returned for reports about caste legislation in the UK and its connotations for the rest of Europe. After that, reports were also made about religious freedom and human rights in Asian countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In the latter three countries particularly, there have been regular attacks on Hindu temples, including one on an ISKCON temple in Bangladesh. Meanwhile in Pakistan, according to a representative who spoke at the Assembly, three Hindu girls are kidnapped and forcefully converted to Islam every single day.
“If someone attempts to report the kidnappings to the police, they are threatened with a case of blasphemy against Islam, which in Pakistan could result in corporal punishment or even a death sentence,” says Bhondoe. “Most of these cases, therefore, go unreported, and the situation worsens every day.”
Bhondoe explains that official Hindu organizations in India cannot be approached to help, because of possible backlash. So instead, the Hindu Forum of Europe is pushing the European Parliament to put pressure on the governments of the countries in question, by threatening to stop business with the countries if they do not establish and follow religious freedom acts.
HFE is also contacting various human rights organizations regarding the issues, and has played a role in creating a “uniform code” document that regulates how citizens must respect other faiths’ places of worship.
The second day of the General Assembly consisted mainly of internal elections in the HFE, with former Hindu Council of the Netherlands president Radj Bhondoe replacing Bharti Tailor as president of the HFE, Dr. Laxmi Vyas from the UK taking the post of Vice President, and Mahaprabhu Das retaining his position as secretary.
In the future, HFE plans to establish national representative bodies in all European Union countries, so that the Hindu communities there can speak with their respective governments through one organization.
In the meantime, ISKCON will continue to work with the HFE in a mutually appreciative and mutually beneficial relationship.
“We got a lot of initial support and infrastructure from ISKCON,” says Radj Bhondoe. “ISKCON is perhaps the most organized and structured institution in Europe, with departments in almost every country, and most major cities too. That’s one of the reasons they were in the picture from the start. Besides that, the devotees of ISKCON are very committed and serious. So we really love to work with them.”
ISKCON Communications Europe Director and HFE secretary Mahaprabhu Das, meanwhile, encourages European ISKCON communities to take a proactive role and help HFE create Hindu platforms in their countries.
“Many times devotees are afraid that if we get involved in Hindu platforms, we’re going to loose our identity or become bewildered philosophically,” he says. “But I think if we mature, we can understand that these are not theological or spiritual platforms. We have our own goal, our own theology, and we don’t lose that. Rather, these are socio-political platforms to represent a larger body of people that have broader principles in common.”
“When you represent a bigger number of people, politically you have more influence on policy makers, governments, and NGOs,” he adds. “So it’s important for ISKCON to be able to work together with other Hindu organizations.”
Mahaprabhu gives many examples why. When the Hungarian Parliament introduced a new religious law in 2011 stripping over 300 religious groups, including ISKCON, of their registered status, representatives of the HFE met with the Ambassador of Hungary in Brussels.
Along with other actions under the umbrella of Hinduism, this resulted in a new amendment being passed in 2012 that returned registered status to several religious organizations including ISKCON Hungary.
HFE representatives also met with the Ambassador of Bangladesh to discuss the attacks that have affected many Hindus including ISKCON devotees there. And the HFE, which includes ISKCON devotee members, has been invited to attend annual meetings with the European Commision, Council, and Parliament in Brussels.
Mahaprabhu understands the need for ISKCON to have its own lobbying platform in Brussels too, and he has done that by legally establishing ISKCON Communications Europe to do such work.
“We should have our own messages, our own identity, our own positions on certain issues,” he says. “But for many issues, it is much more efficient to work with the Hindu Forum of Europe.”[ brussels ] [ hinduism ]