NEW DELHI – The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Wednesday voiced disappointment over the Indian government's failure to issue visas to its delegation to enter the South Asian country.
A USCIRF delegation had planned to meet with officials, religious leaders and civil society activists to discuss religious freedom conditions but was again denied visas. Their first attempt to visit the country failed in 2001. Their June 12 visit would have been the Commission's first to India.
"We are particularly disappointed by the new Indian government's refusal to facilitate an official U.S. delegation to discuss religious freedom issues and government measures to counter communal violence, which has a religious component," said Commission chair Felice D. Gaer.
"Our Commission has visited China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and over 20 other countries. India, a close ally of the United States, has been unique among democracies in delaying and denying USCIRF's ability to visit. USCIRF has been requesting visits since 2001," Gaer noted.
Last month, the Commission released its annual report on religious freedom in countries around the world but delayed its India section because of the planned USCIRF trip.
"We wanted to hear from all sectors of Indian society, and allow these diverse perspectives to shape our report," said Gaer.
Although the Commission obtained U.S. State Department support, made travel arrangements, and requested meetings with a variety of officials for the June 12 visit, the Indian government still refused to issue visas and did not offer alternative dates for a visit.
The denial of visas came just days after a noted Hindu pontiff opposed the scheduled visit by a foreign delegation.
"We will not allow interference in our internal religious affairs by external bodies. We see it as an intrusive mechanism of a foreign government which is interfering with the internal affairs of India," said Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswathi of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham.
USCIRF commissioners planned to discuss the status of religious freedom as well as the communal and anti-Christian violence that broke out again last year. Last August, Christians in the state of Orissa were attacked and their homes and churches were burned by Hindu extremists who blamed the Christian minority for the death of their leader. With little money and fear of more violence, thousands remain in displacement camps today.
The USCIRF delegation was hoping to discuss the Indian government's response to the violence, and its development of preventive strategies at the local and national levels. According to information before USCIRF, the Indian justice system has prosecuted only a handful of persons responsible for communal violence and related abuses since the mid 1980s.
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission. Commissioners are appointed by the U.S. President and congressional leaders. In 2002, the Commission had recommended India be designated as a "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC), citing severe violations of religious freedom. That label was removed in 2005 but the Commission has continued to monitor the country.