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ROME – Friday and Saturday could be described as the most relevant for Pope Francis’s pontificate diplomatically speaking, with meetings with U.S president Joe Biden, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, and India’s Prime Minister Narenda Modi.
All three visitors had to be in Rome this weekend to take part in the G20 summit. Sunday night, they’ll head to Glasgow to take part in the United Nations’ sponsored summit on climate change, COP26.
Francis has met with Biden three times before the president took office. South Korea is a country Francis has visited, and he’s met with the president before, having welcomed him in Rome back in 2018.
However, no meeting this weekend is important when it comes to the Vatican’s diplomatic relations than Modi requesting his first meeting with Francis.
The pope is on record saying that he wants to visit India. Crux has been able to confirm that the schedule for a papal visit to India had, in fact, been drafted several years back.
Yet the formal invitation from the Indian government has never materialized: Since the pope is a head of state, an invitation from the local bishops’ conference is not enough, he also needs one from the civil authorities. To every rule there is, of course, an exception, but not even Francis could get away with visiting the world’s second most populous nation without an invite from the prime minister’s office.
Statistically speaking, Francis and Modi lead a similar amount of people: The world has a little over 1.35 billion Catholics, and India has some 1.35 billion citizens, less than three percent of whom are Christians.
Saturday’s meeting has the potential of being a headache for both: The list of things over which they disagree is actually longer than that of things they have in common. However, both are investing too significant an amount of political capital for this to be just a photo-op.
For Francis, there’s one key aspect beyond mere diplomacy and climate change: Religious freedom and the protection of religious minorities.
Modi is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has ruled India since 2014. The BJP is associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group.
Since the BJP took over, religious minorities have complained of increased harassment by rightwing Hindu groups.
Before the meeting was even announced, Hindu nationalist hardliners expressed their anger over what they see as nothing more than an attempt by the prime minister to appease religious minorities.
Father Babu Joseph, former spokesman of India’s conference of Catholic bishops, told Crux that such a meeting can be a “step in the right direction.” Furthermore, he believes that if Modi “nurtures the ambition of growing into a leader of some significance in the world,” he simply cannot afford to continue glossing over an institution and its head that “hold sway over 1.3 billion people in the world.”
Particularly seeing that other world leaders pay close attention to what Francis has to say on matters of social justice, climate change and COVID, he said.
“Additionally, no global institution other than the Catholic Church has such a vast network of service providing agencies that have played a tremendous role in transforming the lives of people,” Joseph argued. “India, despite the claims to the contrary, is no exception in this network, and as a seasoned politician and sagacious statesman he would want to acknowledge it – though most discretely.”
A visit to the Vatican can also be viewed as a way to influence an important election in the state of Goa, where 25 percent of the population is Christian, and where, unusually, the BJP has several Christian members.
In exchange for the photo-op, Francis will hopefully urge Modi to do more to guarantee religious freedom in a country where 16 of the 28 states regularly witness attacks on Christians, including murder, physical assaults, vandalism of churches, and the arrest of people for so-called “forced conversion.” Violence against religious minorities is compounded by the failure of the police to investigate the perpetrators, seemingly emboldened by the prime minister’s silence.
Both are risking much and gaining much from the meeting. But more importantly, shadowed by Biden, Moon, the G20 and the upcoming COP26 summit on climate, the meeting between Francis and Modi could actually have an impact on the future of 30 million Christians in the world’s most populous democracy.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma