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Is this big news?

.. or does it have to be Saudi Arabia/Pakistan?

U.S. criticises India over visa ban

The U.S. government watchdog on religious freedom abroad criticised India on Wednesday for refusing to grant its representatives visas, after their planned trip came under fire from Hindu conservatives.

India joins only Cuba in refusing a visit by the U.S. commission, which has been allowed to visit even nations whose records it frequently criticises such as China and Saudi Arabia.

A delegation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) had planned to leave on June 12 for India, where it has voiced concern about a rise in communal violence.

"We are particularly disappointed by the new Indian government's refusal to facilitate an official U.S. delegation to discuss religious freedom issues and government measures to counter communal violence," said Felice Gaer, the commission's chair.

"India, a close ally of the United States, has been unique among democracies in delaying and denying USCIRF's ability to visit," she said in a statement, noting the commission has been requesting to go since 2001.

The feud comes despite warming ties between the world's two largest democracies, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledging on Wednesday to work for a broad alliance.

A spokesman for the Indian embassy in Washington declined comment on the USCIRF's request for visas. India is fiercely protective of its sovereignty and regularly bristles at perceived foreign interference.

Religion is an especially sensitive topic in India, a secular state divided at birth in 1947 to create Pakistan as a separate Muslim homeland.

Conservative groups from the Hindu majority had spoken out against the visit by the USCIRF, whose commissioners are appointed by the U.S. president and which makes policy recommendations to the U.S. government.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) of America said it would be "incomprehensible" for the USCIRF to go to India, noting that persecuted religions have found refuge in the country for thousands of years.

The group said in a statement that the United States should treat India "at par with Britain, France and Germany" and not like nations such as Cuba, Iran and Pakistan. ()

A trip would signal that while President Barack Obama's administration "is trying to build and repair relationships with all the nations of the world, particularly the Islamic world ruled by kings and dictators, it does not care if its relationship with a peaceful, democratic nation is jeopardised," it said.

Last year, the eastern Indian state of Orissa was torn by riots in which Christian groups say Hindu mobs massacred more than 100 people.

In the western state of Gujarat, more than 2,000 people - mostly Muslims - were beaten, shot or hacked to death in an orgy of violence in 2002.

The riots in both states were set off by deadly attacks on Hindus for which members of the religious minorities were held responsible.

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