Narendra Modi said on Saturday that he invited Pope Francis to visit India during a “very warm” meeting at the Vatican.
The Indian Prime Minister made the announcement on his Twitter account on Oct. 30, following a 55-minute meeting with the pope. The two men had been scheduled to speak for half an hour.
Modi wrote: “Had a very warm meeting with Pope Francis. I had the opportunity to discuss a wide range of issues with him and also invited him to visit India.”
Modi, the leader of the world’s largest democracy, is in Rome to attend a G20 summit taking place on Oct. 30-31.
The Holy See press office said that after his papal audience, Modi met with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Secretary for Relations with States, or “foreign minister.”
“During a brief conversation, the cordial relations between the Holy See and India were discussed,” it said.
During the customary exchange of gifts, the pope gave Modi a circular bronze casting illustrating the biblical verse “The wilderness will become a fruitful field” (Isaiah 32:15).
The prime minister gave the pope a candle stand made from pure silver, as well as a book outlining India’s commitment to tackling climate change.
Modi, 71, a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was elected prime minister in 2014 and reelected in a landslide in 2019.
He is the first Indian prime minister to visit the pope at the Vatican since June 2000, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee met with John Paul II during an official visit to Italy.
India and the Holy See established diplomatic relations shortly after India gained independence from Britain in 1948.
Paul VI became the first pope to visit India in 1964, when he attended the International Eucharistic Congress in Mumbai.
The last pope to travel to the country was John Paul II, who visited New Delhi in 1999.
Pope Francis had expressed hope that he would visit India as a part of his 2017 to South Asia trip to Bangladesh and Burma (Myanmar).
Agenzia Fides, the information service of the Pontifical Mission Societies, reported at the time that Indian Catholic leaders had been in touch with Modi’s government about a papal visit, but that “they were not able to obtain a commitment.”
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According to Vatican protocol, the pope only visits another country if the head of state sends an official invitation.
India, the world’s second-most populous country after China, is ranked 10th on the World Watch List compiled by the advocacy group Open Doors.
The group says that “Christians are persecuted in all areas of public and private life,” and targeted by anti-conversion laws in nine of India’s 28 states.
According to the 2011 census, 79.8% of India’s 1.38 billion population is Hindu, 14.2% Muslim, and 2.3% Christian.
India has the second-largest Catholic population in Asia after the Philippines. There are around 20 million Catholics in the country, comprising Latin Rite Catholics as well as members of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) listed India as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom in 2020 for the first time in more than a decade.
“The government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), promoted Hindu nationalist policies resulting in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom,” the commission’s 2021 report said.
The report highlighted violence against religious minorities.
“In 2020, for example, mobs — fueled by false accusations of forced conversions — attacked Christians, destroyed churches, and disrupted religious worship services. In many cases, authorities did not prevent these abuses and ignored or chose not to investigate pleas to hold perpetrators accountable. This contributed to increased mob attacks and a fear of reprisal against those coming forward,” it said.
There was an outcry in July this year when an Indian Jesuit priest died at the age of 84 after spending the last eight months of his life jailed on terror charges for his activism on behalf of Indian society’s lowest castes.
Fr. Stan Swamy died days before his scheduled bail hearing in the High Court of Bombay, which had been postponed due to his deteriorating health.
Catholic bishops, Jesuit provincials, and world leaders had called for his release.
On the eve of Modi’s Rome visit, the Vatican released a message to the world’s 1.2 billion Hindus marking the feast of Diwali, also known as Deepavali.
The “festival of lights,” one of Hinduism’s major festivals, will be celebrated on Nov. 4.
The message highlighted the challenges presented by “climate change, religious fundamentalism, terrorism, hyper-nationalism, xenophobia.”
“As believers grounded in our own respective religious traditions and as persons with shared vision for and shared responsibility towards humanity, in particular the suffering humanity, may we Christians and Hindus, individually and collectively, and joining hands with people of other religious traditions and of good will, reach out to people who are in despair, to bring light into their lives,” wrote the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
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A Catholic archbishop in India’s Karnataka state has again called on the state government to withdraw its orders to survey Christian missionaries, their places of worship, and other Christian institutions. The survey comes amid a proposal to pass “anti-conversion” laws, which Christians and others say are abused by extremists.