Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN's headquarters in New York on Sept. 25. (Photo: AFP)
There was something out of the ordinary in the manner a handful of newspapers reported over the weekend that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will call on Pope Francis at the Vatican during his Rome stopover for the first of two multinational meetings in Europe.
There was no official confirmation of the meeting other than the news leak, which foreign correspondents would normally call a trial balloon.
The report has raised many questions. If Modi is indeed meeting the pope — an important event in view of the rampant targeted hate and violence against religious minorities in India — this would burnish his international image. This, some say, would be a consummation devoutly to be desired with a great cascading impact on inter-community relations in India.
In his seven years in office, Modi has stubbornly refused to invite the head of the global Catholic Church to India, home to almost 30 million Christians, about 60 per cent of whom are Catholics.
The pope has been persistent in his calls for peace, including peace between religions in all parts of the world, and dialogue between peoples. His dialogue with the top clergy of the Islamic world, and with world religious leaders invited to the many interfaith meetings he has hosted in the Vatican, are noteworthy landmarks of his papacy.
The official statement by the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs has not gone beyond saying Modi will be travelling to Rome and Glasgow from Oct. 29 to Nov. 2 to attend the 16th G20 Summit and the World Leaders’ Summit of COP26.
Goa has many Christians — about 25 percent of its population — and their votes are vital for any party seeking political power in the state
In Rome, the PM will participate in the G20 Summit from Oct. 30-31 and will have a separate meeting with his Italian counterpart Mario Draghi. Italy is the current chair of the economic summit, which will also see the participation of the European Union in a discussion on recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and global health governance.
Modi then goes to Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Summit of leaders of 120 countries from Nov. 1-2. He travels on his own private high-security aircraft, which cost a reputed US$7 million, and can therefore find time to call on the pope if he wants to. But the lack of any news from the pope’s office seems to indicate that the bilateral meeting is not yet firmed up.
This has triggered speculation in New Delhi of resistance from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu organization with its militant religious nationalism, which Modi served as a senior official until the turn of the century when he became chief minister of Gujarat state.
A meeting with the pope may anger Hindu hardliners who may see it as appeasing religious minorities whom they want relegated to second-class citizens in the country. The RSS had vehemently opposed Pope John Paul II during his last visit to India where he released the church document Ecclesia In Asia, which Hindu nationalists said would trigger mass conversions in India.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strategists would like to hope that a Modi-Francis summit, however brief, would be great optics and help the BJP retain power in the state of Goa, which goes to the polls early next year. With a 500-year Catholic tradition, Goa has many Christians — about 25 percent of its population — and their votes are vital for any party seeking political power in the state.
Modi meeting the pope is not the same thing as the pope coming to India. While Indian Catholics had been hoping for an India visit in the first few years of his papacy, Francis himself first expressed a desire to visit India. During his flight back from a trip to Georgia and Azerbaijan on Oct 2, 2016, he said he would "almost certainly" visit India and Bangladesh in 2017.
On Feb. 7, 2017, three Indian cardinals, including Cardinal Oswald Gracias, met Modi in New Delhi to discuss the possibility of a papal visit. The government did not clear the visit. Early this year, in another meeting involving the cardinals, brokered by a high government official and the ruling party, another formal request was made. Modi seemed in no hurry to assent to a papal visit.
The Covid lockdown, with its accompanying crackdown on human rights and civil liberties, gave free rein to the most extreme elements in the RSS. Members of the Modi cabinet, top-ranking ministers in state governments and Hindu leaders have been targeting Christians and Muslims.
Prayers are routinely disrupted, with states such as Haryana and Uttar Pradesh competing over the viciousness of action by mobs with the consent and sometimes participation of the police.
The death of an ailing 84-year-old Jesuit activist, Father Stan Swamy of Ranchi in Jharkhand, who was repeatedly denied bail after his arrest on trumped-up charges of conspiracy against the state, made United Nations officials and international rights groups express their concern at the violation of human rights and religious freedom in India. India’s rights and freedom of faith ranking has been among the lowest since its Independence in 1947.
Violence and incidents against religious minorities include physical assaults, damage to churches, spying on prayer services and refusal to allow new church buildings
In Modi’s recent low key visit to the United Nations, where he also met US President Joe Biden and Indian-African origin Vice President Kamala Harris, this was politely brought to his notice.
Harris famously reminded him that “democracies around the world are under threat” and “it is imperative that we defend democratic principles and institutions within our respective countries.” She particularly singled out the work that needs to be done “to begin to imagine, and then actually achieve, our vision for democratic principles and institutions.”
A recent memorandum that the Christian community gave to the Indian minister for minority affairs said that out of 28 states in India, at least 16 regularly witness attacks on Christians. Violence and incidents against religious minorities include physical assaults, damage to churches, spying on prayer services and refusal to allow new church buildings.
The most vicious is social exclusion, which is also commonly used as a tactic to victimize minorities, notably by denying them basic rights and services such as access to water and electricity, as well as employment, thereby increasing their vulnerability. Violence against religious minorities is compounded by the failure of the police to investigate and prosecute mobs and perpetrators. Modi has remained silent.
Modi’s words in the Vatican, if the summit with Pope Francis materializes, would be important in reversing this terrible trend in India. This would be a single-point agenda if religious minorities were to draft it.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
….as we enter the last months of 2021, we are asking readers like you to help us keep UCA News free.
For the last 40 years, UCA News has remained the most trusted and independent Catholic news and information service from Asia. Every week, we publish nearly 100 news reports, feature stories, commentaries, podcasts and video broadcasts that are exclusive and in-depth, and developed from a view of the world and the Church through informed Catholic eyes.
Our journalistic standards are as high as any in the quality press; our focus is particularly on a fast-growing part of the world - Asia - where, in some countries the Church is growing faster than pastoral resources can respond to – South Korea, Vietnam and India to name just three.
And UCA News has the advantage of having in its ranks local reporters who cover 23 countries in south, southeast, and east Asia. We report the stories of local people and their experiences in a way that Western news outlets simply don’t have the resources to reach. And we report on the emerging life of new Churches in old lands where being a Catholic can at times be very dangerous.
With dwindling support from funding partners in Europe and the USA, we need to call on the support of those who benefit from our work.