Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday asked Pope Francis to visit India, a significant opening towards the head of the Catholic Church who has long sought an official invitation to the Hindu-majority country.
Modi, who is in Italy for the G20 summit, invited Francis during a meeting at the Vatican, where he spent nearly an hour talking to the pontiff -- well beyond the scheduled 20-minute chat.
“Had a very warm meeting with Pope Francis. I had the opportunity to discuss a wide range of issues with him and also invited him to visit India,” Modi said on Twitter after the talks.
A Vatican statement gave no details of the meeting between Francis and Modi, who is in Rome to attend the G20 summit of the world’s richest countries.
In 2016, Francis said he was “almost sure” of visiting India the following year along with Bangladesh. The pope had been on record saying that he wants to visit India. The Vatican had even drafted a schedule for a papal trip several years ago, according to religious news website Crux.But Indian Catholic Church leaders failed to convince Modi, who heads a nationalist administration, to invite him.
The Church officials said at the time that the government had cited scheduling problems for the prime minister, and Francis visited Myanmar and Bangladesh instead.
Francis is keen to visit the world’s second most populous country to push the defense of religious freedom.
Activists say that religious minorities in India have faced increased levels of discrimination and violence since Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014.
While Muslims who make up around 14 percent of the population have borne the brunt, Christians, who account for just over two percent, have also suffered a rise in reported violent attacks.
There are about 20 million Roman Catholics in India, about 1.5 percent of the population of 1.3 billion. Some 80 percent of India’s people are Hindu, according to UCA News, which specializes in the Catholic Church in Asia.
The last pope to visit India was John Paul II, who went to New Delhi in 1999 to issue a papal document on the Church in Asia.
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