By Robin Gomes
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has broken his silence over growing violence against Christians in the country, assuring he will look into the matter.
"I'm the prime minister for all Indians, irrespective of caste and creed, and if there is any issue you can come directly to me and we can look at it," Modi assured Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay, who met him at the Prime Minister’s residence in New Delhi on March 20.
Speaking to the media after the meeting, the cardinal who is president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) cited Modi as saying his first priority was the welfare of the people and the eradication of poverty.
The president of India’s Catholic bishops drew the attention of the prime minister to “sporadic attacks on minority institutions and personnel in different parts of the country,” such as the recent attack and vandalism on a Catholic hospital in Ujjain.
He told the premier that a strong message from him that such acts of violence will harm the country will help not only allay the fears of the affected community but discourage “misguided people from creating mischiefs.”
“We are a small community but our contribution to nation building is between 15 to 20 percent,” the cardinal told the prime minister.
MattersIndia reported Cardinal Gracias describing the meeting as “open, cordial and frank” that helped the two leaders know each other better. The prime minister assured the cardinal his doors were always open for him and that he could meet him whenever he wanted on any issue.
CBCI deputy secretary general, Monsignor Joseph Chinnayyan who accompanied the cardinal, said it was a one-to-one session with the prime minister. “This was the first time a Church leader has such meeting with the prime minister. Normally, we meet the prime minister or the president in groups,” MattersIndia reported.
Cardinal Gracias is also the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) and a member of the Council of Cardinals (C9), the group of nine cardinals chosen by Pope Francis to advise him on his reform efforts.
Papal visit not in sight
During his encounter with Modi, the 73-year old cardinal also made another attempt at a possible visit by Pope Francis to the country. "I told the prime minister about the great love and acceptance of the Pope among the people in the world, also in India, and having him in India will benefit the country,” Cardinal Gracias told journalists. Modi listened "attentively" but did not make any commitment to invite the pontiff.
"I reminded the prime minister of the Church's contribution in the fields of education, health and social issues and that it would like to do so in future and be part of nation building," said Cardinal Gracias. "Although we [Catholics] are a small minority group, some 2 percent of the population in the country, for centuries the Church has been at the forefront of education and health and serving the poor."
Pope’s desire to visit India
Pope Francis had first expressed a desire to visit India two years ago. During his flight back from a trip to Georgia and Azerbaijan on Oct 2, 2016, he said he would "almost certainly" visit India and Bangladesh in 2017.
On February 7, 2017, three Indian cardinals, including Cardinal Gracias, had met Modi in New Delhi, to discuss the possibility of a papal visit. Indian Christians felt optimistic when a bishops’ press release following the meeting said, “ the government holds a favorable attitude toward the Pope's visit to India.”
However, despite efforts by India’s bishops, the 2017 visit never materialized because of foot-dragging by the government that is led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Patry (BJP).
In an interview to National Catholic Reporter on June 15, 2017, Cardinal Gracias said, "I am beginning to lose hope about 2017."