'The Indian government has accepted and is a party to international agreements, standards and conventions on religious freedom.'
'We did not force it on them. We are not trying to impose something on them that they haven't already agreed to...'
'India has never allowed us to visit, which is very disappointing for such a wonderful country with such a rich democratic tradition. They seem to be afraid to let us in.'
'I would encourage Indians to create an Indian Commission for International Religious Freedom, and I would be delighted to host their visit to the US.'
'I believe that these kinds of issues deserve equal looking into, whether it's in the US or anywhere else.'
Earlier this month the Indian government refused to issue visas to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in time for a long-planned trip to India to discuss and assess religious freedom conditions in that nation.
The USCIRF delegation, led by Reverend Thomas Reese, who was appointed a commissioner by President Barack Obama in May 2014, was scheduled to leave March 4.
But not having heard from the Indian authorities till the eve of the departure date, Robert P George, chairman, USCIRF, said March 3. 'We are deeply disappointed by the Indian government's denial, in effect, of these visas. 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.'
Pointing out that the USCIRF has been able to travel to many countries, even 'those that are among the worst offenders of religious freedom, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, China, and Burma,' he added, '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 USCIRF, he claimed, would continue to pursue a visit to 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.'
The principal responsibilities of USCIRF -- created by the US Congress and federally funded -- include reviewing, through the lens of international human rights law, the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom internationally and making policy recommendations to the President, secretary of state, and Congress.
It is an independent, bipartisan US federal government commission with commissioners appointed by the President and the leaders in both Houses of Congress.
State Department spokesman John Kirby expressed disappointment over India's refusal to issue the visas and noted, 'We are supportive of the commission and the important role they play in reviewing facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom around the world.'
'The US remained engaged in a number of discussions with the Indian government about this and other issues with respect to religious freedom. It is not a topic of conversation we do not have and it is not a topic of conversation that we are afraid to have with our Indian counterparts,' Kirby said.
'We think every society is made stronger when people are free to worship or not worship at all. And that would apply in India as it does anywhere else around the world,' he noted, before adding, 'I do not have a formal policy statement with respect to the state of religious freedom in India right now... (But) as I said, we are disappointed by this decision.'
In an exclusive interview with Aziz Haniffa/Rediff.com, Reverend Reese, left, explains the genesis of the visa applications for the USCIRF delegation and says he would welcome a similar commission from India to the US.
The Indian embassy put out a statement saying '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.'
What's your response to that statement justifying the Indian government's decision in refusing your delegation to visit India?
We were created by Congress to advise the President and the State Department on issues of international religious freedom. That's our job, and we've been doing this for a number of years in countries all over the world.
We like to be able to talk to government officials, talk to people in these countries as we do these reports, and we like to get first-hand information.
It's really our desire to get the best information possible that makes us want to go and visit India.
Otherwise, we have to do these reports from afar based on news reports, based on research, based on people who come and visit us and other organisations and groups.
As a courtesy to the Indian government and the people of India, we'd like to come and get first-hand information, and the Indian government doesn't allow us to do that, which is part of our job if we are going to advise the President and advise the State Department on issues of international religious freedom.
The second thing I would like to emphasise is that the Indian government has accepted and is a party to international agreements, standards and conventions on religious freedom.
These are agreements that they took on themselves. We did not force them on them. So, we are not trying to impose something on them that they haven't already agreed to...
We are just wanting to see how well they are following these (agreements).
How did the Indian government inform USCIRF that your delegation's visa applications were being denied? When did you apply?
Was there a deadline that you specified? What was the genesis of this process?
This is a trip that took us many months to plan and we had to arrange it with our embassy in India -- when we could come and when it would work for them.
We asked long in advance and we notified the Indian government of this... We had to order our airplane tickets and everything else, and then we just got no response.
They never responded to us one way or the other. They just kept saying that it's in the process, it's in the process, and then the time for us came and passed without us every receiving a visa.
They never really gave us any good reason as to why they were turning us down. So, it was doubly disappointing that they kept us hanging till the last minute...
I didn't know when to pack my bags... We had to put our whole lives on hold while we waited for them to respond. It would have been more polite and more professional if they had simply said no.
What were the particular issues that USCIRF intended to look into or investigate if you had had gotten the opportunity to have gone to India?
It's the same kind of issues we would look at in any country.
What is the situation in terms of religious freedom, especially the treatment of religious minorities in the country?
Is there inter-religious violence going on?
Are minorities being protected by their government?
And if there are acts of violence against religious minorities or individuals, does the government investigate and bring the perpetrators to justice?
What is the government doing to resolve and lessen inter-religious conflict?
Is there discrimination against minorities?
And, finally, is inter-religious conflict being stirred up for political reasons? These are the kinds of things we investigate in any country that we visit.
Can you talk to any specific issues that were of particular concern that the commission wanted to zero in on if you had been on the ground in India?
Yes, there were the instances of violence in certain parts of India -- mob violence -- where it was recorded that police just stand on the sidelines and watch or sometimes participate when churches are being burnt, nuns being raped, Muslims being attacked and told to go to Pakistan and Christians being told to go to Europe, and that if you are not a Hindu, you are not a real Indian.
This kind of activity, this kind of persecution, is very problematic when it is in a country that has committed itself to religious freedom, freedom of conscience.
And you say you had the full support of the State Department and the US embassy in New Delhi for your proposed visit and they had coordinated and arranged the meetings with the various government officials and groups and individuals?
Yes. The embassy helps us arrange appointments with key people, and, of course, we want to talk to government officials involved -- people who are involved in internal security and peace -- and any religious affairs department officials, this kind of thing.
We would also arrange to meet with various religious leaders to find out what their perspective is on these issues.
And had the US embassy in New Delhi put these meetings together, made the schedules, etc?
Yes. The embassies in the countries we visit are extremely helpful in arranging these visits.
Just last year, I visited Vietnam and Nigeria and the US embassy -- when we would suggest some people we would want to see -- would help us arrange these meetings because they know many of these people on the ground that would be helpful to talk to. They are always extremely helpful in arranging these meetings.
I remember the earlier United Progressive Alliance government in India also refusing visas to a USCIRF delegation a few years ago.
Is this the second successive time the USCIRF has been denied visas to visit India?
Actually, it's the third time. In fact, India has never allowed us to visit, which is very disappointing for such a wonderful country with such a rich democratic tradition. They seem to be afraid to let us in. It makes you wonder what are they trying to hide.
So, it's not just the Modi government, but there were earlier governments that would not allow us to come in either.
I know the mandate of the USCIRF is to monitor international religious freedom -- the emphasis on international. But Indians get very sensitive to such third party probing and foreign entities trying to investigate what they perceive are internal affairs.
At a time when the Republican Presidential candidates led by the likes of Donald Trump have been fomenting the worst form of xenophobia, Islamophobia and ugly bigotry, what argument can you make when your group wants to look into the religious freedoms of minorities in India?
Isn't it the classic case of people in glass houses...?
My response would be that I would encourage Indians to create a similar Commission in their country -- an Indian Commission for International Religious Freedom, and I would be delighted to host their visit to the US.
I believe that these kinds of issues deserve equal looking into, whether it's in the US or anywhere else.
We certainly have lots of problems here. So, I would strongly encourage other countries to be critical of the US -- that's good, and I don't think Indians, in the same way, should be afraid of hearing from people abroad.
All we are trying to do is shine a light on the truth and get a discussion going here. It's not like we have the power to force India to do any thing.
Our job is to tell it like we see it, and then if we are wrong, then okay, let the Indians respond and tell us how we are wrong.
This was one of the reasons we wanted to go, so that we could hear their side of the story.
If we were allowed to go, we were perfectly willing to meet with Indian government officials as we would with religious leaders -- Hindus, Christians, Muslims, others.
We would meet with groups that were working for human rights, for religious freedom. And we would definitely meet with any government officials -- absolutely -- to hear what they have to say, the problems they face.
Every time I've interviewed senior US officials who deal with India -- from Nisha Biswal, the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, and Rich Verma, the US Ambassador in New Delhi -- they deny that discussions on human rights, religious freedom, particularly pertaining to the plight of minorities, no longer figure on the US-India bilateral agenda.
They point to the President's speech at Siri Fort in Delhi, warning against any religious discrimination, etc, which in fact, he repeated at a National Prayer Breakfast meeting, once again invoking Mahatma Gandhi and hoping that India would strongly hold to its plurality and its secular ideals.
But let's face it, human rights and religious freedom of minorities today don't even figure on the periphery of the US-India agenda. The focus of the strategic partnership is on economics, trade and defense cooperation.
So, what is the utility of the USCIRF, when you can't even make a dent in terms of what you are trying to achieve even though you have been created and funded by Congress and the administration?
That's exactly why we were created -- because the issue of human rights, and especially religious freedom, often fall to the bottom of the agenda even in US foreign policy.
So, part of our job is to keep talking about it, keep shining a light on it, and to keep reminding our State Department, our President, that religious freedom is an issue that we continue to need to raise.
That it's important, and in fact, it's important for economic and national security reasons, because you cannot have economic development if you have inter-religious conflict and violence in a country.
You cannot have national security if there is persecution and discrimination. This is the kind of thing that breeds terrorists.
The path to economic development and national security includes a concern for religious freedom.
Tto reiterate my question about the utility of the USCIRF, which is funded by US taxpayer dollars: But for a couple of Congressional hearings and the publication of your annual and country reports, which gets some exposure of sorts but few and far between in recent years, all of your certifications about your country of particular concern etc, and so on, are largely ignored even by Congress that created USCIRF and by the President who appointed the Commissioners.
They evidently pay more homage to the high-priced lobbyists and special interest groups that some of these countries can afford, coupled with economic and strategic imperatives, which takes the sheen away from these issues of human rights and religious freedom.
How do you deal with such a situation and remain relevant? Doesn't it frustrate you as members trying to do what the USCIRF was set up to do, but being ignored by the very institutions that created the Commission in the first place?
I will not deny that this is a difficult job that we have as a commission. It's very hard to make religious freedom a priority when others are concerned about national security and trade and economic development and all those other things.
But that's our job, and we are going to keep doing it.
This is one of the reasons we sometimes are critical of the State Department and others -- to remind them that these are the values that we as a nation and Americans hold, and also that we as a world through our international agreements have committed ourselves to.
We don't think it's sufficient for countries to simply approve these international agreements and profess verbally their commitment to religious freedom and then not do anything to protect religious minorities, not do anything to support religious freedom.
But I agree with you. This is not an easy task the Commission has, and a lot of people will put it at the bottom of their agenda.
That's our job to remind people of its importance and keep talking about it and keep shining a light on the truth of what's actually happening on the ground.