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Pope Francis urged to visit India

The meeting of Narendra Modi and Pope Francis as well as the Indian PM’s invitation to visit his country made global headlines. Religious leaders have appealed for peace and unity amid repression and abuses.

Published: November 05, 2021 11:18 AM GMT

Updated: November 05, 2021 03:50 PM GMT

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has invited Pope Francis to visit India during their first meeting at the Vatican on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome.

On several occasions, the 84-year-old pope expressed his desire to visit the world’s second most populous country. The Vatican even scheduled a papal trip to India in 2017 but instead the pope visited Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party government refrained from officially inviting the head of the Catholic Church, allegedly due to pressure from Hindu radical groups. The news of the official invitation was greeted with caution by Catholic and civil society groups, with commentators terming Modi’s move as a ploy to score political mileage and restore India’s tarnished image.

India has witnessed dwindling religious freedom and rising levels of discrimination and violence against religious minorities including Muslims and Christians since Modi’s BJP government came to power in 2014.  

Pope Francis urged to visit India

This photo taken and handout on October 30, 2021 by The Vatican Media shows Pope Francis and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a private audience at The Vatican. (Photo by Handout / VATICAN MEDIA / AFP)

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Pakistani Cardinal Joseph Coutts made a call for interfaith harmony and unity as he visited the biggest Hindu temple in Karachi on the eve of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. This is the first time a cardinal has celebrated Diwali in a Hindu temple in Pakistan.

Cardinal Coutts wore a headscarf as he visited the Shri Swaminarayan temple and a Sikh shrine in the same compound on Wednesday, accompanied by some priests. Temple trustees presented the cardinal and priests with sweets and traditional shawls from Sindh province.

Cardinal Joseph Coutts (second from right) celebrates the Hindu festival of Diwali at the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Karachi, Pakistan, on Nov. 3. (Photo supplied)

The staff of various church commissions joined Hindu families in lighting up the evening with sparklers. More than 200 attended the two-hour ceremony held amid tight security by police and rangers. Christian activists and organizations also shared Diwali greetings on social media.

Gestures of interfaith harmony are essential in Pakistan, where minorities face routine abuses and violence from religious extremists. 

Thousands of Catholics in Bangladesh flocked to a popular Marian shrine to pray and express their gratitude to Mary for saving them from the pandemic.

Church officials said about 20,000 Catholics, mostly ethnic tribal people, attended the annual pilgrimage at Our Lady of Fatima shrine in Baromari in Sherpur district from October 28-29. The pilgrims joined a candlelit rosary procession on the hilly roads around the shrine and participated in confessions before the pilgrimage ended with a special feast day Mass on Friday.

A woman places a candle at the feet of a Marian statue at Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Baromari in Sherpur district of Bangladesh on Oct. 29. (Photo courtesy of Ujjal Gomes)

The large-scale celebration came a year after the annual pilgrimage was cut short to six hours last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic when some 1,500 selected pilgrims were allowed to attend.

Popular devotion to Mary and St. Anthony is common among Catholics in Bangladesh, where some 400,000 Bengali and ethnic faithful live in two archdioceses and six dioceses in the Muslim-majority country. 

China’s communist government has intensified a crackdown on a controversial Christian cult, the Church of Almighty God, with 600 members jailed this year alone.

Media reports says the members were detained without trial for up to two years before they were sentenced to six months to seven years in prison across China until September.

Chinese authorities have jailed 600 members of the Church of Almighty God, a controversial Christian cult movement banned in the communist country. (Photo: Bitter Winter)

In the eastern province of Shandong, some 237 members of the church were sentenced to prison terms and hefty monetary fines. Among the convicts were people aged below 20 and above 67. In August, a female cult member died in prison for unknown reasons.

The Church of Almighty God is believed to have 3-4 million members in China and is led by a Chinese couple based in New York who declared an open war against the atheist Chinese Communist Party. The group is banned in China for its anti-government stance.

Military soldiers in Myanmar have threatened to kill a Catholic priest after accusing him of collecting funds for a local militia. The priest encountered soldiers on his way back to his parish in a car with five other people after buying fertilizers for the garden on October 30.

The soldiers stopped the car, inspected the passengers’ bags and threatened to shoot the priest dead if he was seen traveling again. The priest hails from Pekhon Diocese in Myanmar’s Shan state, which is among the worst violence-hit areas along with Loikaw Diocese in Kayah state.

An aerial view on Oct. 30 of Thantlang in Chin state, where more than 160 buildings have been destroyed by shelling by the Myanmar military, according to local media. (Photo: AFP)

Since the military coup of February, fighting has escalated between the military and the combined rebel forces of the Karenni Army and Karenni People's Defence Force. More than 100,000 displaced people have sought shelters in churches, convents and makeshift camps.

The military has targeted priests and pastors, bombed and vandalized churches in the predominantly Christian region. 

The government of Timor-Leste has conferred the country’s highest national honor on the most senior Catholic bishop days after his death.

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President Francisco Guterres awarded the Oder of Timor-Leste on Bishop Basilio do Nascimento Martins of Baucau Diocese. The president said in a decree that Bishop Basilio was given the honor "for his dedication to humanity and his courage," especially during the country’s struggle for independence from Indonesia.

Bishop Basilio do Nascimento Martins of Baucau (left) and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin head to a Mass celebrating the Church's 500th anniversary in Timor-Leste in 2015. (Photo: Ryan Dagur)

Bishop Basílio was a key figure in the period before the 1999 independence referendum of Timor-Leste. He was the most sought-after church leader by media for his comments on country’s situation.

Bishop Basilio died on October 30 at a hospital in capital Dili at the age of 71. His body was kept at St. Anthony’s Cathedral in Baucau, where Catholics thronged to pay their tributes before his funeral on Thursday.

Dozens of Catholic priests have made an appeal for a ceasefire in Indonesia’s restive Papua province following deadly clashes between government forces and separatist rebels.

Some 33 priests from Timika Diocese in the Christian-majority province issued a joint statement on Sunday calling for a ceasefire and peace in the region. The priests expressed concerns as fighting between Papuan rebel groups erupted after the insurgents attacked a military post in Sugapa on October 28.

Catholic priests speak during a press conference at a church in Timika on Oct. 31 about an ongoing conflict in Papua’s Intan Jaya district where thousands of people have sought refuge at churches after a two-year-old boy was killed in a firefight between government troops and independence-seeking rebels. (Photo: AFP)

One child was killed and another wounded, while 6,000 fled their homes and sought shelter at church compounds in Intan Jaya district. The priests urged both sides to hold dialogue to end the violence so that people could return to their homes.

Papua has been plagued by a pro-independence armed insurgency since the 1960s, leaving between 100,000 and 300,000 dead and tens of thousands displaced. 

Islamist insurgents in restive southern Thailand have stepped up offensives against security forces. This week the militants carried out several attacks in Muslim-majority Narathiwat province.

On Tuesday, six suspected militants ambushed and opened fire on two policemen traveling in a pickup truck on a country road. One officer was shot in the leg and the other in the arm, but they managed to flee before the attackers doused their vehicle in gasoline and set fire to it.

Muslims attend Friday prayers at Pattani Central Mosque in southern Thailand. Separatists in the country's three Muslim-majority provinces have been conducting an insurgency since 2014. (Photo: AFP)

The day before, two Muslim rangers were injured when a bomb exploded while they were on a patrol in a rural area.

Narathiwat is one of three Muslim-majority southern provinces bordering Malaysia where a separatist Islamist insurgency has been ongoing since 2014. More than 7,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in terror attacks by separatists and retaliatory operations by Thai security forces.

A Catholic priest has joined rights groups to stop the son of former Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos from contesting the presidential election next year.

Father Christian Buenafe of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines and several rights groups filed a petition with the Philippine Election Commission on Tuesday seeking disqualification of former lawmaker Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Junior. The petitioners sought to cancel Marcos’ certificate of candidacy due to “false material representation” under the country’s election code. 

Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos Jr., former senator and son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is surrounded by supporters in Manila in this April 2, 2018, photo. (Photo: AFP)

Marcos Junior is among high profile candidates running for president next year. He is an ally of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte and supports his infamous drug war and death penalty for traffickers.

His father Ferdinand Macros’ iron-fisted rule from 1965 to 1986 was notorious for corruption, extravagance and brutality. A popular church-backed uprising toppled him and forced the family into exile in the US. 

On All Souls’ Day, Catholics in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu flocked to three church-run columbariums where the ashes of their dear ones are stored. They decorated it with paintings, placed flower petals and lit candles.

For years, religious minorities in Hindu-majority Nepal have reluctantly accepted cremation and a columbarium as the Himalayan country suffers from a shortage of burial grounds as land is scarce and expensive.

Catholics pray before storing the ashes of a relative in a columbarium of a Catholic church in Nepal's capital Kathmandu. (Photo supplied)

A columbarium is a sepulchral building containing many small niches for cinerary urns or ashes. This tradition derives from the Roman Empire era when cremation and columbarium were typical customs.

For decades, Christians in Nepal have unsuccessfully demanded for burial grounds from the government and even filed court cases.  There is only one Catholic cemetery in Kathmandu belonging to a Jesuit Retreat Center, which is off limits now. A small cemetery, founded in 1816, belongs to the British embassy, where mostly British citizens lie buried.

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