By David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - India has denied visas for a delegation from the U.S. government agency charged with monitoring international religious freedom, the agency said on Thursday.
The delegation from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom had been scheduled to leave for India on Friday for a long-planned visit with the support of the U.S. State Department and the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, but India had failed to issue the necessary visas, the commission said.
"We are deeply disappointed by the Indian government’s denial, in effect, of these visas," USCIRF chairman Robert George said in a statement.
"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," he said.
George said USCIRF had been able to travel to many countries, including those among the worst offenders of religious freedom, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, China, and Myanmar.
"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.”
The Indian embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Last year, despite a much-heralded fresh start in U.S.-India ties under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the United States ran into problems arranging visits by the head of its office to combat human trafficking and its special envoy for gay rights.
A U.S. State Department official referred queries on the visa issue to the Indian government, but highlighted remarks by President Barack Obama on a visit to Delhi last year, in which he made a plea for freedom of religion in a country with a history of strife between Hindus and minorities.
In its 2015 report, the bipartisan USCIRF said incidents of religiously motivated and communal violence had reportedly increased for three consecutive years.
It said that despite its status as a pluralistic, secular democracy, India had long struggled to protect minority religious communities or provide justice when crimes occur, creating a climate of impunity.
Non-governmental organizations and religious leaders, including from the Muslim, Christian, and Sikh communities, attributed the initial increase in violence to religiously divisive campaigning in advance of the country’s 2014 general election won by Modi.
The report said that since the election, religious minorities had been subject to derogatory comments by politicians linked to Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party and numerous violent attacks and forced conversions by Hindu nationalist groups.
U.S. law allows for imposition of sanctions on countries the commission terms "of particular concern," but the USCIRF's recommendations are not binding and these are not automatically imposed.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by David Gregorio and Tom Brown)