On Saturday, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi summons Pope Francis, Head of the Sovereign of Vatican City State, for a 30-minute meeting, he will become the fifth Indian Prime Minister to visit the leader of the Roman Catholics, the largest religious denomination in the world.
Back home, Modi’s visit was greeted with enthusiasm by the Catholic Church. Even before the government officially announced the visit, the chairman of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal George Alenchery, said it would “add more energy and warmth to relations between our country and the Vatican and Catholic Church “.
This visit comes at a time when Christians in many parts of the country are complaining of harassment and attacks against the community and its institutions.
An investigative team from the Association of Civil Rights NGOs, United Against Hate and United Christian Forum recently presented a report after visiting Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, saying there had been a series of attacks against Christians and churches in these states.
Politically, the visit is important as it precedes the Assembly elections in Goa, where the Christian community provides an important base of support. Party leaders said the community vote was crucial for the BJP in the state, where it was in power with the support of dissident congressional groups and regional parties.
The Roman Catholic Church also exerts an influence in Kerala. Christians and Muslims make up almost half of the state’s population and the BJP is keen to gain the support of Christians to become a strong political force, which it has failed to achieve so far in Kerala. while making electoral gains in other parts of the country.
Christians are the third largest religious community in India. According to the 2011 census, they represent 2.3% of the population, behind Hindus (79.8%) and Muslims (14.2%).
Former Vatican PMs
Before Modi, Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, IK Gujral and Atal Bihari Vajpayee had met the popes of the time in the Vatican.
When Nehru visited Pope Pius XII in July 1955, the Indian government faced protests from the Portuguese for its attempts to annex Goa to the Union. With the Portuguese saying they wanted to protect Christians in the region, the community in different parts of the world was skeptical of the Indian government’s intentions.
Nehru had imposed an economic blockade after the Portuguese killed 20 people in a protest launched by the Communist and Socialist Parties for the Freedom of Goa. During his audience with the Pope, Nehru clarified that what was happening in Goa was a “political problem” and “not a religious one.”
A July 9, 1955 New York Times article quoted Nehru telling media in Rome that the Goa question had been “briefly mentioned” in his interview with the Pope. âMr. Nehru said he told the Pope that the controversy between India and Portugal over Goa was a political issue, not a religious one. “His Holiness agreed with me,” he added, “the report said.
Indira Gandhi, who had been part of Nehru’s team during her visit, met Pope John Paul II when she was Prime Minister – in 1981. Prime Ministers IK Gujral in 1997 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2000 have appealed to the same Pope during their respective visits to Italy.
World leaders who visit Rome for international conferences or summits make a point of visiting the Holy See.
Popes in India
The first pope to visit India was Paul IV, who traveled to Mumbai in 1964 to attend the International Eucharistic Congress. Pope John Paul II visited India in February 1986 and November 1999.
Pope John Paul II’s second visit to India became controversial when Sangh Parivar groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal staged protests, demanding an apology from the Pope for the alleged conversion of Christian missionaries in the past. VHP chief Acharya Giriraj Kishore’s description of the Pope as a âdacoitâ drew sharp criticism, even from the BJP.
It was not just the prime ministers who visited the Holy See. Communist veteran and former Kerala Chief Minister EK Nayanar presented a Bhagavad Gita to Pope John Paul II in 1997 and he kept a rosary presented by the Pope throughout his life. Nayanar was accompanied by the current Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, who was then a minister in his government.