U.S. Religious Freedom Commission Denied Visas to India

A U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) delegation has been denied visas to enter India.

The delegation was scheduled to visit the South Asian country on June 12 to study the status of religious freedom there but was not provided with any visas, on fears that it would lead to severe criticism of the Indian government over growing violence against minorities, particularly Christians.

"They knew we had tickets for June 12 and the visas are yet to be given, so the inference is obvious...they don't want us to visit," one commission associate told The Times of India.

In its annual report last month, USCIRF had labeled India's report as "pending," noting that the commission would travel to India for the first time in June to gain information for its report. The team had also mentioned its keen interest in investigating last year's anti-Christian violence in the state of Orissa.

The group planned to release the chapter on India this summer after its visit.

The denial of visas comes just days after a noted Hindu pontiff expressed opposition to an investigation 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," Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswathi, a noted Hindu religious leader said.

Joining Shankaracharya, some fanatic Hindu groups were also opposed to the visit by a U.S. body. The World Hindu Council of America called the proposed visit "incomprehensible."

According to a statement, the council described India as the "largest functioning democracy in the world with an independent judiciary, a statutorily constituted Human rights Commission, an independent press and other supporting organizations" that "would appear to be quite capable of taking care of the religious freedoms and human rights of its citizens."

"India not only offers freedom of religion under its constitution, but does not discriminate based on religion. Similar freedoms are not available in its neighboring countries," the Hindu council added.

Indian authorities insisted that the potential criticism was not the cause for the denial of visas. Noting that they were not concerned with what USCIRF may report, they said they were worried that a "high profile visit seen as having government sanctions would have raised hackles in India."

USCIRF commissioner Talal Y. Eid stated earlier that if the visit to India does not occur, the commission will move ahead and release its report on India.