It is more than 20 years since a pope set foot in India. In 1999, an ailing Pope John Paul II made what reporters called a “tense” visit to the capital, New Delhi. The 79-year-old pontiff made a strong defence of religious freedom during his 62-hour trip.
“In the dusk of his two-decade papacy,” wrote the Chicago Tribune, “the pope made no concessions or conciliatory gestures to those Indians and Hindus who feel that Western civilisation has weakened their culture and that the work of Christian missionaries has enfeebled their religion.
“Instead, he launched a crusade for more Christian converts in Asia on the very day Hindus celebrated Diwali, their main annual festival marking the triumph of light over darkness, a time for hospitality, food and fireworks.”
That trip is likely to be seared into the memory of Hindu nationalists. Before John Paul II’s arrival, they had issued three demands. First, that he declare that Catholics would no longer seek conversions. Second, that he apologise for the 16th-century Goa Inquisition. Third, that he concede that Christ is not the sole path to salvation. Not surprisingly, he ignored all three requests.
Back then nationalists were not the dominant force they are today. Police held 30 Hindu leaders for the duration of John Paul II’s stay. Now that the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is firmly in power, it is in no hurry for another papal visit.
And yet the Holy See came quite close to securing an invitation in 2017. The plan was for Pope Francis to travel to India that November, followed by Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladesh. But the Pope was forced to drop India from his schedule.
Indian Catholics were understandably disappointed. With an estimated 17 million faithful, the country has the 16th largest Catholic population in the world (placing it above Canada, Chile and Portugal). Compare this with Myanmar (in 89th place with a Catholic population of 603,000) and Bangladesh (108th place with 283,000).
The Indian Church was unable to offer a convincing explanation for the change of plan, beyond suggesting that it had been difficult to schedule a visit because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hectic diary. Several commentators argued that Modi did not want to aggravate his Hindu nationalist base in the run-up to the 2019 general election (which he won by a landslide).
Given that Modi is no longer facing immediate electoral contests, the Vatican should sound out whether he might be open to a papal visit. India should be high on the Vatican’s wish list for several reasons.
With a current population of 1.37 billion, India is expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country by 2027. Like China, India has an expanding economy that is lifting millions (though by no means all) out of poverty. It is therefore fast becoming one of the most influential nations.
Christianity is India’s third-largest religion after Hinduism and Islam, with an estimated 28 million adherents.
Yet in recent years Christians have reported an increase in intimidation. Last year, the United Christian Forum’s helpline logged more than 300 cases of mob attacks against Christians. Police prosecuted fewer than 40 of those cases. A papal visit would offer an invaluable boost to a frightened community.
Modi has nothing to fear from welcoming the Pope. Francis has shown on previous delicate international visits that he is capable of raising concerns without offending his hosts. If Modi were to welcome Francis, he would be signalling that India is not – as many observers fear – turning its back on tolerance. The gesture would be likely to generate favourable global publicity.
The Vatican, meanwhile, should do everything within its power to secure a visit. Report after report has found that religious freedom is shrinking worldwide. Christians and other minorities are enduring persecution in China, but the Holy See has minimal influence there, despite signing a “provisional agreement” with the communist authorities in 2018.
Unlike China, India is not an autocracy; it is the world’s largest democracy and boasts an extraordinary multi-religious civilisation. If the Vatican can help to shore up religious freedom there, then it will not only help millions of Indians but also send a powerful message to the rest of the world.
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