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PM Modi hints at papal visit to India next year

Pope Francis may visit next year, claims the prime minister in interview with news channel based in southern Kerala
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) releases the Bharatiya Janata Party's manifesto ahead of the general elections in New Delhi on April 14.

Pope Francis and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a private audience at The Vatican in October 2021. (Photo by Handout / VATICAN MEDIA / AFP)

Published: April 22, 2024 12:04 PM GMT
Updated: April 23, 2024 03:47 AM GMT

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi says Pope Francis could visit India next year after revealing in a television interview that he had invited the pope during a 2021 visit to the Vatican.

"I have invited him [Pope Francis] to visit India... Maybe he will fix his program [for the India visit] next year," Modi said in the interview broadcast on April 21 by Asianet News, based in southern Kerala state.

The interview comes as the southern state, with a sizable Catholic population, prepares to go to the polls on April 26 in the second phase of elections. The seven-phase election will choose 543 new members of the national parliament.

Christians make up 18 percent of Kerala's 33 million people. Kerala is also the base of two Eastern rite churches, the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches.

The state elects 20 lawmakers to India's Lok Sabha or lower house of parliament. Modi’s pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not won a seat from Kerala so far.

The BJP also does not have a single member in the state legislative assembly, dominated by the communists and the secular Congress party.

"When I went to the Vatican [in October 2021], I met the Holy Father. We had long discussions, and he was aware of the work of my government. We spoke on various issues... and on many matters, we were on the same board," the Indian prime minister said. 

The Vatican has confirmed a four-nation papal trip to Southeast Asia in September. However, India is not included in it.

Despite his repeated visits to Asia, Pope Francis has never visited India. In October 2021, it was reported that he had "accepted" an invitation from Modi.

In 2016, the pope was said to be "almost sure" to visit India, but the Vatican dropped the plan and instead included Bangladesh and Myanmar for the 2017 papal trip.

The BJP and the hardline organizations affiliated to it ideologically oppose the Church’s missionary activities. They also oppose papal visits to India, projecting the pope as the head of the missionary institution.

However, in the interview, Modi claimed that his party was committed to "taking all communities, including Christians, on board."

He cited the example of Christians in the tiny western state of Goa and the northeastern states.

"In Goa, our government has been running for many years. And it is being run with the support and help of the Christian community only," Modi said.

He confessed, though, that his party would have to work harder to gain the confidence of Christians.

"In Kerala, we have Christian leaders. Bishops and Christian leaders meet me five times a year," he claimed while adding that “Christian leaders keep complaining whenever they meet me" against the Congress and communist parties.

He said Church lands and properties in Kerala were mired in legal disputes due to the "involvement of the Congress and the Left parties."

"They say, please help us.... they want the Government of India to help them," Modi said.

The prime minister said he wants to help suffering Christians, especially the fishermen, improve their financial conditions.

Most fishermen in at least four parliamentary constituencies in Kerala — Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Alappuzha, and Ernakulam — are Catholics.

Modi's interview with Asianet News was the first to the state's Malayalam language media. Modi does not speak Malayalam and responded to the questions in Hindi.

Christian leaders have been critical of Modi's party ahead of elections.

"Indian Christians have major issues with Modi's government and his BJP party," said N. Kenny, a social worker from northeastern Nagaland state.

The Modi government has stopped foreign funding of several Church-run institutions.

Christian leaders also complain of hardline Hindu groups attacking their institutions in northern states like Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh.

The continuing violence in Manipur since May 3 last year is a primary concern for Indian Christians, including in Kerala.

After Modi came to power in 2014, attacks against Christians increased many-fold. He is seeking a third consecutive term in office in the forthcoming polls.

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