India is making a mistake in refusing to issue visas to a U.S. international religious freedom organization, said religious liberty advocates and experts specializing in the South Asian country.

"This is a missed opportunity for India and for religious freedom. We had hoped to travel there for some time because of the growing concerns about religious freedom in India. We wanted to go there and assess the situation and learn the facts on the ground," said Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Swett was responding to India's recent decision to not issue visas to the commission for an upcoming trip.

"It is a disappointment to many people because India is a vibrant and pluralistic democracy. It is an incredibly important and significant country – one that is committed in its own Constitution to provide for freedom of conscience and belief. It is very unfortunate they made this decision," she told CNA March 17.

The group, which monitors religious freedom worldwide, was scheduled to leave for New Delhi on June 12 to assess increasing communal violence.

According to a 2015 report by the commission, religion has been the cause of increased violence in India in the past few years.

"Despite the country's status as a pluralistic, secular democracy, India has long struggled to protect minority religious communities or provide justice when crimes occur, which perpetuates a climate of impunity. Incidents of religiously-motivated and communal violence reportedly have increased for three consecutive years," the report states.

In February, the commission released its global annual report on religious freedom but delayed information on India, pending further findings from the upcoming trip.

The Indian Embassy in Washington, which has authority to issue visas, said it did not see the need for the delegation.

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"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 embassy statement said.

But Swett said this is a poor explanation.

"To say that USCIRF does not have standing to come to learn about the religious freedom situation is just not credible," she said. "We have visited many countries over the years, many of which have very problematic religious freedom concerns, places like Pakistan, Vietnam, Burma, and Saudi Arabia – and have provided thorough research and solid recommendations. It is unfortunate that India did not see value in this."

This is the third time India has refused to issue visas to commission, having previously done so in 2001 and in 2009 without an explanation.

Swett suggested that the refusal for the visit stems from being critical of abuses found in India.

"India doesn't like the fact that there has been criticism of some of the troubling patterns we have seen in in recent years, but we can't commit to not write candidly about what we learn. This is our sworn duty," she said.

The bipartisan federal agency has been critical of India in the past. In 2002, the commission designated India as a "Country of Particular Concern" after 2,000 people died in inter-communal riots in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Although the designation was removed in 2005, India is still closely monitored by the group.

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Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow on South Asian Studies at the Heritage Foundation, told CNA that India is misguided in refusing to collaborate with the U.S. religious freedom group.

"Indian officials are sending the commission a message that they don't agree with the commission's findings on India and don't support their work," she said March 18. "India believes religious freedom is an internal issue and mistakenly sees this as the best way to protect its sovereignty."

But Curtis argued that India would be better off allowing the commission to visit.

"This is just one more strike against India's reputation for stifling religious freedom," she said. "It was particularly important to allow this delegation to come now because there have been several disturbing incidents that have raised serious questions about the state of religious freedom in India."

"A better strategy would be for Indian officials allow USCRIF members to travel to India and provide their viewpoint. Because the fact is, the commission will continue to write their report and advise the president and Congress," Curtis said.

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, there have been numerous reports of discrimination and violence against Christians and Muslims.

In Modi's first 300 days in office, there were "at least 43 deaths in more than 600 cases of violence, 149 targeting Christians and the rest targeting Muslims," according to a report by the All India Christian Council. There were also several cases of "desecration of churches, assault on pastors, and illegal police detention of church workers."

Fr. Dominic Emmanuel, prominent Indian author and former spokesperson of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese for 16 years, said the decision to prohibit the commission a trip shows India has something to hide.

"I am not surprised that it has refused them visas. The government is afraid that the commission will find out first-hand about the laws and other incidents which deny religious freedom to individuals," he told CNA on March 16.

"India is now ruled by the right-wing Nationalist party, which not only glorifies Indian culture and religion but also undermines other religions, particularly Christianity and Islam,"
Fr. Emmanuel explained.

"Religious freedom abuses are on the rise. Several states have anti-conversion laws, despite the fact that the Indian Constitution clearly protects freedom of conscience. It is part of the BJP agenda to pass such anti-conversion laws," he said.

Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has vowed to adopt anti-conversion laws nationwide. These laws, known as the Freedom of Religion Acts in India, are primarily aimed to prevent Indians from converting to Christianity or Islam.

Indians who violate the law face up to two years imprisonment and severe fines. These laws currently exist in six Indian states including, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh

Swett said that America should be vocal about helping India change these laws and oppose religious intolerance.

"The U.S. government should urge the Indian government to put pressure on states that have adopted some of these problematic anti-conversion laws and encourage them to amend them and bring them into conformity with international human rights standards," she said.  

"We should also encourage the Indian government to speak out when local government officials or religious leaders make derogatory or inflammatory statements about minority religious communities that lead to violence," she added.  

Despite the current state of affairs, Swett said she believes India values religious freedom and will allow a visit in the future.

"Most Indians would say that religious freedom is key to the successful future of society. This is really the hallmark of a successful, tolerant and mature society," she concluded. "And that's why we are hopeful that India will welcome a visit in the future."