WASHINGTON The State Department was "disappointed" India had refused visas to members of a U.S. commission that examines violations of religious freedom around the world, a spokesman said on Monday.
The commission, made up mainly of professors and leaders of non-profit groups appointed by the president and members of Congress, had planned to travel to India last week but New Delhi failed to issue them visas.
The Indian Embassy said in a statement on its web site that "a foreign entity" like the U.S. commission had no standing to pass judgment on the state of India's constitutionally protected rights.
Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton who chairs the commission, said last week it was unfortunate that a secular democracy like India had refused a visit from the panel, which has been permitted in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and China, which restrict religious freedoms.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said the United States was "disappointed by this news."
"We're supportive of the commission and the important role they play in reviewing facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom around the world," Kirby said.
He declined to say whether the State Department had discussed the issue with counterparts in New Delhi. But he did say the United States remained engaged "in a number of discussions" with the Indian government on the issue.
The commission said in its 2015 report on religious freedom that incidents of religiously motivated and communal violence had reportedly increased for three consecutive years.
It said that despite India's status as a pluralistic, secular democracy, New Delhi had long struggled to protect minority religious communities or provide justice when crimes occurred, 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 the 2014 general election by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which won the vote.
Since the election, religious minorities have been subject to derogatory comments by politicians linked the BJP and numerous violent attacks and forced conversions by Hindu nationalist groups.
Despite a much-heralded fresh start in U.S.-India relations under Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP, the United States has run into problems arranging visits by other American officials, including the head of its office to combat human trafficking and its special envoy for gay rights.
(Reporting by David Alexander; editing by Grant McCool)
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