On Saturday, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi calls on Pope Francis, head of the sovereign of the Vatican City State, for a 30-minute meeting, he will become the fifth Indian Prime Minister to have visited the head of Roman Catholics, the largest religious denomination in the world.
Back home, Modi’s visit has been excitedly welcomed by the Catholic Church. Even before the government officially announced the visit, the president of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference, Cardinal George Alenchery, issued a statement that it would “add more energy and warmth to the relations between our country and the Vatican and the Catholic Church”.
The visit comes at a time when Christians in many parts of the country have been complaining of harassment and attacks on the community and its institutions.
A fact-finding team of the NGOs Association for the Protection of Civil Rights, United Against Hate and United Christian Forum recently presented a report after visiting Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, saying there has been a series of attacks against Christians and churches in these states.
Politically, the visit is significant as it comes ahead of Assembly elections in Goa, where the Christian community forms a significant support base. Party leaders said the community’s vote is crucial for thein the state, where it has been in power with the support of splinter groups of the Congress and regional parties.
The Roman Catholic Church also wields influence in Kerala. Christians and Muslims form almost half the state’s population and the BJP is keen to get the backing of the Christians to emerge as a strong political force, something 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 Census 2011, they form 2.3 per cent of the population, behind Hindus (79.8%) and Muslims (14.2%).
Previous PMs at Vatican
Before Modi, Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, I K Gujral, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee had met the then Popes in the Vatican.
When Nehru visited Pope Pius XII in July 1955, the Indian government was facing protests from the Portuguese for its attempts to annex Goa to the Union. With the Portuguese claiming that it wanted to protect the Christians in the region, the community from different parts of the world were sceptical about the Indian government’s intentions.
Nehru had imposed an economic blockade after the Portuguese had killed 20 people during a protest launched by communist and socialist parties for the freedom of Goa. In his audience with the Pope, Nehru clarified that what was going on in Goa was a “political issue” and “not religious”.
A report in The New York Times on July 9, 1955, quoted Nehru as telling the media in Rome that the question of Goa was “briefly mentioned” in his talk with the Pope. “Mr Nehru said he had told the Pope that India’s controversy with Portugal over Goa, was a political, not a religious problem. ‘His Holiness agreed with me,’ he added,” the report said.
Indira Gandhi, who had been part of Nehru’s team during his visit, met Pope John Paul II when she was Prime Minister — in 1981. Prime Ministers I K Gujral in 1997 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2000 called on the same Pope during their respective visits to Italy.
World leaders who visit Rome for international conferences or summits make it a point to pay a visit to the Holy See.
Popes in India
The first Pope to visit India was Paul IV, who travelled 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 outfits such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal staged protests, seeking an apology from the Pope for alleged conversion by Christian missionaries in the past. VHP leader Acharya Giriraj Kishore’s description of the Pope as a “dacoit” drew strong criticism, even from the BJP.
It is not just Prime Ministers who have paid a visit to the Holy See. Communist veteran and former Chief Minister of Kerala E K 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 current Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who was then a minister in his government.