ucanews.com reporter, New Delhi
Updated: November 22, 2017 11:33 AM GMT
Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives for a weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square on Nov. 22 at the Vatican. (Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)
Leaders of right-wing Hindu groups are reigniting the controversial issue of Christian missionaries converting Hindus, ahead of Pope Francis' historic Asian visit that will see him travel to Myanmar instead of India.
They have feigned ignorance about the pontiff being blocked from a planned India visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
The "Vishwa Hindu Parishad" (VHP, Council of Hindus) and other right-wing groups such as the Bajrang Dal, a hard-line Hindu group opposed to Christian missionary work, have been demanding a moratorium on the church's conversion activities. They also opposed Pope John Paul II's visit to New Delhi in November 1999.
Pope Francis "will have to clarify how conversion of people from other religions is justified," said Bajrang Dal activist Angad Prasad from Assam state in northeastern India.
VHP sources told ucanews.com they would have a few questions for the pope, in an obvious reference to the conversion issue that Hindu groups have been steadfastly opposing.
Church leadership "lost hope" for a 2017 papal visit to India when Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, who will now be celebrating Mass with Pope Francis in Yangon on Nov 29, indirectly told media that until June this year New Delhi had issued no invitation to the pope — a necessary condition for a head of state visit under international diplomatic protocol.
"We are already in June. Even if they suddenly say, 'come' … (it) will take several months for the dioceses to prepare the people," the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences was quoted in the media as saying.
The leader of the Asian bishops then hinted a change of place saying: "We have to find a good spot where we can give the Holy Father his due importance and respect."
Neither the government nor the Vatican has issued any statement explaining why India was dropped, but it is widely understood that Modi's pro-Hindu government did not issue the required invitation.
Pope Francis told media a year ago that he was "almost sure" of visiting Bangladesh and India in 2017 but in August the Vatican made the surprise announcement of a Nov. 27-Dec. 2 papal trip to Bangladesh and Myanmar.
"I am not sure whether he (Pope Francis) was ready to come or was keen enough," said Pravin Togadia, international president of the VHP.
"I also do not know why he is not coming ... so I would not like to comment on the matter," Togadia told ucanews.com.
Modi has had a number of diplomatic engagements in the past fortnight meeting global leaders including the US President Donald Trump and the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Manila.
At home, Modi has also been meeting several visiting dignitaries including French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
December is also election month in Gujarat, a crucial western Indian state for Modi’s ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party and where Modi was chief minister before launching his successful foray into national politics.
Observers say Modi and the BJP avoided a November papal visit as it could endanger the party’s election prospects.