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Why India is denying visas to members of the U.S. government that monitor global religious liberty

The government of India is defending its decision to deny visas to members of a U.S. government group that monitors religious liberty around the world.

Members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom were scheduled to visit India beginning March 4 to assess religious liberty, according to a news release from the group, but without visas will be forced to cancel the trip.

In a statement on the website of the Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C., the Indian government claimed USCIRF didn't have the authority to monitor religious freedom in that country.

"We do not see the locus standi of a foreign entity like USCIRF to pass its judgment and comment on the state of Indian citizens' constitutionally protected rights," the statement reads.

USCIRF chairman Robert P. George expressed disappointment at the decision.

"As a pluralistic, non-sectarian, and democratic state, and a close partner of the United States, India should have the confidence to allow our visit. USCIRF has been able to travel to many countries, including those that are among the worst offenders of religious freedom, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, China, and Burma," he said.

"One would expect that the Indian government would allow for more transparency than have these nations, and would welcome the opportunity to convey its views directly to USCIRF,” George said.

George indicated that the commission would continue to pursue a visit to India, especially in light of reports that violations of religious freedom have been increasing since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014.

Modi was accused of standing by and even encouraging sectarian violence when more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed by rioters in 2002 when he was chief minister, the Guardian reported. He was denied a U.S. visa following that incident.

A 2015 USCIRF report attributed more recent increases in religious violence and forced conversions to Hinduism to the divisive tactics of Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, according to Reuters.

In May 2015, Christian Today reported there were 600 attacks against religious minorities over a period of a few months.

"Between December and February, five churches were attacked in Delhi alone, with incidents including arson, vandalism and burglary. An elderly nun was gang raped at a convent school in the east of the country in March, and a story has emerged in the last few days of a pastor imprisoned in Odisha state on trumped up charges of forced conversion," according to Christian Today.

In a January 2015 visit to India, U.S. President Barack Obama challenged India's record on religious tolerance, according to the Guardian.

"No society is immune from the darkest impulses of men," said Obama. "India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith."

President Obama also quoted Gandhi: "He said, 'For me, the different religions are beautiful flowers from the same garden, or they are branches of the same majestic tree.'"

The U.S. also faced roadblocks last year in arranging visits to India by the head of its office to combat human trafficking and its special envoy for gay rights, Reuters reported.

Email: apond@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @allisonpond