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Modi holds off again on inviting Pope Francis to India

Cardinal Gracias fails to get agreement from prime minister for a papal visit next year

Modi holds off again on inviting Pope Francis to India

Cardinal Oswald Gracias (right) meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on March 20. (Photo supplied)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to be non-committal on inviting Pope Francis to the country despite requests from church leaders as sporadic violence and intimidation against Christians continue across India.

Less than a year after the Vatican gave up in frustration on a planned visit by the pontiff to the world's second most populous country in 2018, turning instead toward strife-torn Myanmar and Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Cardinal Oswald Gracias failed to get agreement for a papal tour from the leader of the Hindu-centric Bharatiya Janata Party in a rare meeting with Modi on March 20.

"I told the prime minister about the great love and acceptance of the pope among the people in the world, also in India, and having him in India will benefit the country," Cardinal Gracias told media after the meeting. He added that Modi had listened "attentively" but did not make any commitment to inviting the pontiff to India.

Observers suggested that Modi would be unlikely to invite the pope — a diplomatic necessity as the Vatican is a sovereign state — before the April 2019 general election.

"I reminded the prime minister of the church's contribution in the fields of education, health and social issues and that it would like to do so in future and be part of nation building," said Cardinal Gracias, the archbishop of Bombay.

"Although we [Catholics] are a small minority group, some 2 percent of the population in the country, for centuries the church has been at the forefront of education and health and serving the poor."

Cardinal Gracias, who is also president of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences, said he also drew Modi's attention to the situation facing minority communities in India, including a recent attack on a Catholic hospital and nuns in Ujjain.

He said Modi responded very positively and said: "I'm the prime minister for all Indians, irrespective of caste and creed, and if there is any issue you can come directly to me and we can look at it."

But the main focus of Indian media in terms of the church is now the land controversy concerning Cardinal George Alencherry of Ernakulam-Angamaly, who together with some of his staff has been charged over suspect land deals.

"The entire church is with Cardinal Alencherry but we respect the law and so will let the judiciary decide," said Cardinal Gracias, a canon law expert.

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Cardinal Alencherry and his team have been accused of selling prime land at undervalued prices, causing losses to the archdiocese. As head of the church, he is the titular owner of all church land in the archdiocese.

The controversy has raised the prospect of a special Kerala land act, which was put on ice after being written about a decade ago by the late V.R. Krishna Iyer, a former judge of the Supreme Court of India and a member of the Law Reform Commission.

"I am not in favor of the land act proposed in the Kerala church because we have more than enough internal law to check corruption, everything is audited from time to time and there is transparency," said Cardinal Gracias.

"I am afraid if the land act comes, it could be misused and will do more harm to the church than good."

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