Conrad K. Sangma, member of the Indian parliament, addressing a gathering in New Delhi on July 15, 2016. Sangma will soon meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss visa issues affecting foreign missionaries. (ucanews.com photo)
Visas for foreign missionaries has hit headlines again in India after two Christian parliamentarians took up the case of three elderly missionaries who may be forced to leave the country.
Vincent H. Pala and Conrad K. Sangma from Christian-dominated Meghalaya state sought the intervention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh in renewing the visas of the missionaries.
The missionaries are Spanish Jesuit Father Ignacio Zuazua, based in Gujarat, Belgian Jesuit Father Aurele Brys, working in Jharkhand and Australian Missionaries of Charity Sister Laurel Judith Seaton. Both Jesuit priests have been in India for over 50 years and the nun for over 40.
Sangma, president of the National People's Party, told ucanews.com on April 20 that he plans to meet the prime minister, along with Catholic officials, to speak about visas and other issues that affect Christians in the country.
Sangma said the issue is not associated with "any policy" change in the government and this "cannot be seen as the government targeting Christians."
"There are many overseas missioners in India and they are doing great service. The government also knows it but each one of them [the three missioners] have different issues regarding their visas," Sangma said.
Since May 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory in the national elections, Christian leaders have accused the government of tacitly supporting fanatic groups working to make India a Hindu-only nation.
At least seven Indian states have laws restricting conversion. BJP leaders and Hindu organizations have also made a firm stand against missionary activities and routinely accuse Christian missionaries of violating conversion laws.
No policy change?
Pala from the opposition Congress party said it is "too early to say the problem comes because of the government is discriminating against Christians.
He said he received no response from the government to his request on behalf of the missionaries even a week after he approached them. "I am still hopeful that the government will give a positive response because it also knows that missionaries are doing a good job," he said.
Father Brys told ucanews.com there are problems regarding the visa renewal but refused to give any details.
"There are problems. But it is my personal problems. I do not want to discuss that," Father Brys told ucanews.com April 20.
Jesuit Father George Pattery, Provincial of South Asia and President of the Jesuit Conference of South Asia, said the visa issue was nothing new and when there was a problem in the past it was addressed accordingly. He said his office does not have any data to show how many overseas Jesuits are in India.
Both parliamentarians said that work of the foreign missionaries cannot be overlooked because they have been working tirelessly for the poor.
India's visa policy has a category of granting a "missionaries visa" for a duration approved by the government which allows overseas missionaries to work long-term in the country if associated with a registered organization.
"The basic policy has not been changed," said a home ministry official who did not want to be named. However, these visa papers are always cleared on the provision that other mandatory criteria are fulfilled, he said.
The required documents include proof of registration of a missionary in India to "substantiate that the foreigner has come to work in that capacity," the official said.
"Also, the center with which the missionary is associated should have specific government approval … a kind of No Objection Clearance to do missionary activity."
A missionary also has to give an undertaking to take responsibility for a quick "repatriation" in case anything adverse happens or is reported.
"Specifically in these cases — one is not sure which reason — either separately or jointly have been applied to delay the visa process. But there is no prejudice to prevent any foreigner or missionary," the official said.