India denies visas to US govt team that monitors religious freedom

Hindu priests hold traditional incense lamps as they perform a ritual known as"Aarti" on the banks of Sangam in Allahabad, India on Feb 14, 2016.
Hindu priests hold traditional incense lamps as they perform a ritual known as"Aarti" on the banks of Sangam in Allahabad, India on Feb 14, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A United States government team that monitors religious freedom around the world has been denied visas to India, New Delhi's embassy in Washington confirmed on Friday (March 5).

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) visits countries to report on violations of religious freedom and make policy recommendations to US officials.

The group said on Thursday that India had refused its request for visas for a long-planned trip, saying it was "deeply disappointed".

USCIRF chairman Robert George said the group's members had traveled to nations that "are among the worst offenders of religious freedom", including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and China.

It comes as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government faces accusations it has fostered an atmosphere of rising intolerance and emboldened religious hardliners.

In its response, the Indian embassy in Washington questioned the right of a "foreign entity like USCIRF to pass its judgment and comment on the state of Indian citizens' constitutionally protected rights".

"There is no change in the policy of the government of India with respect to such visits," it said in a statement, adding that the Indian constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion.

The US group has been denied visas to visit India in the past, a spokesman for the Indian foreign ministry told AFP, without giving specific dates.

The religious monitors will still try to visit India, "given the ongoing reports from religious communities, civil society groups and NGOs that the conditions for religious freedom in India have been deteriorating since 2014", Mr George said.

A recent spate of violent attacks on secular intellectuals and Muslims suspected of killing cows, which Hindus consider sacred, have heightened concerns of mounting intolerance under Mr Modi's two-year-old government.