MUMBAI, India — Pope Francis’s possible visit to India and the fate of an Indian priest kidnapped in Yemen were reportedly not on the agenda when Amit Shah, the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), met with bishops and Christian leaders in the Indian state of Kerala.
Francis said last year he hoped to visit India and Bangladesh at some point in 2017, but the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not yet formally invited the pontiff to the country.
“This was a casual visit, and him being the chief of the party that rules the country, he was briefed about the various issues that Kerala faces in respect of agriculture and other related areas,” A.P. Jimmy, the spokesperson for the Syro Malabar Catholic Church told local media.
Father Paul Thelakat, the former spokesperson for the Syro Malabar Church, told Crux the bishops may have missed an opportunity.
“If some of the Kerala bishops show enthusiasm to meet the president of the BJP whose policy and programmes are evidently known to all, it may give an unfortunate message,” Thelakat said.
For some time, the roughly 30 million Christians in India, about half of whom are Catholic, have suffered various forms of intimidation and harassment, including physical violence.
In the main, the violence is driven by Hindu nationalists who accuse Christians of the use of force and surreptitious tactics in pursuing conversions, often storming into villages and leading “reconversion” ceremonies in which Christians are compelled to perform Hindu rituals.
Christians have felt even more under threat since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party – a Hindu nationalist party – took power in the country.
Kerala, located in southwestern India, has the largest Christian population of any Indian state, at 20 percent, and the BJP has only one member in the local legislature.
On June 2, Shah met with Christian leaders – including Catholic bishops of different rites – at the local Revival Center in Kochi. Party officials said the meeting was part of an effort to broaden the appeal of the party beyond its Hindu base.
A papal trip has been in the works for over a year, and the country’s bishops have asked Modi to make a formal invitation on several occasions. However, the subject was not reportedly discussed with Shah.
Thelakat said bishops should not go to meet political leaders “unless there is a reasonable matter that concerns” them.
“In many parts of India Christians are living in fear. It is only in Kerala some honest criticism of the central rule can be done,” the priest said.
“If the situation is used as venue to air our fears, it is welcome,” Thelakat added. “As I understand some of the anxieties of the Christian minorities were aired there.”
The fate of Father Thomas Uzhunnalil is also something Thelakat said the the government should be tackling.
He was abducted March 4, 2016, when four gunmen attacked a Missionaries of Charity-run retirement home in Aden, the provincial capital of Yemen, killing 16 people, including four Missionary of Charity sisters.
Two videos have been released by his captors in December and May, showing the kidnapped priest pleading for help.
“Everyone wants the life of Father Tom to be saved by all means,” Thelakat said.
“Twice videos were telecast in the channels where you see Father Tom pleading for his life,” he told Crux. The content of the video is clearly the work of captors with their designs and not something freely expressed by Father Tom.”
Thelakat also said P.C. George, a member of India’s Legislative Assembly, was not helping when he suggested last week the Catholic Church in India raise money to pay a ransom for the release of the priest. He said he was “apprehensive of the prudence of making such statements.”
Thelakat said the release of Uzhunnalil was not in the hands of the Church, but of the government of India.
“Father Tom’s release will be possible with the work of the external affairs minister and by the concerted diplomatic activity with friendly countries in the area,” he said. “This can only be done by the Government of India.I am pinning my hope in the government to save one of its citizens.”