Religious leaders in India have started preparations for the possible visit of Pope Francis to the country after the pontiff accepted an invitation from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month.
Archbishop Anil Joseph Thomas Couto of Delhi led a gathering of religious leaders on November 22 in Delhi to start formal preparations for the pope’s visit.
The papal trip is viewed as an opportunity for a turnaround in India’s relations with the Vatican following the failure of negotiations for a papal trip to the predominantly Hindu nation in 2017.
Goswami Sushil Ji Maharaj, national president of the Indian Parliament of Religions, said religious leaders have been preparing for the pope’s visit since 2014, adding that it would send out “a strong message for people to respect each other’s faith.”
“People of India should take this extraordinary and timely effort of the prime minister to promote brotherhood in our nation,” said Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, chief imam of the All India Imam Organization.
“I thank the pontiff for accepting the invitation to visit our country,” he said.
A gathering of religious leaders on November 22 in the capital New Delhi focused on the theme of “encounter with God and one’s self,” the words that Pope Francis suggested as a way that all men and women must build relationship.
“There is great need to cultivate this culture of encounter,” said Swami Shantatmananda, who heads the Ramakrishna Mission in Delhi.
“True religion is caring for the poor, the widows and the orphans. It is in doing acts of kindness and goodness that we must become world leaders.”
“We need to continue to safeguard and celebrate this rich and unique identity of diversity and plurality of religions and cultures, customs and traditions, ethnicities and heritages,” said Archbishop Couto in his message to the gathering.
He said the gathering of leaders of different faiths ahead of the pope’s visit “has great significance to inter-faith harmony for peace and progress of our nation.”
Vowing to continue to support the interfaith movement, Giani Ranjit Singh, head priest of the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi, called for increase in the levels of tolerance and harmony in the country.
He called on everyone “to replace hatred with love, violence with peace.”
Hailing the historic meeting of the religious leaders, Acharya Vivek Muni, president of the International Mahavir Jain Mission, said “dialogue is a prerequisite for maintaining harmony.”
There are about 20 million Roman Catholics in India, about 1.5% of the population of 1.3 billion. Some 80% of India’s people are Hindu.
In 2016, Pope Francis said he was “almost sure” of visiting India the following year along with Bangladesh. But Indian Catholic Church leaders failed to convince Modi, who heads a nationalist administration, to invite him.
At the time the 2017 visit fell through, Church officials said the Indian government had cited scheduling problems for the prime minister. Francis visited Myanmar and Bangladesh instead.
The last Indian prime minister to meet a pope was Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who met John Paul II at the Vatican in 2000.
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.
The Indian Foreign Ministry announced last month that the invitation was for the pope “to visit India at an early date, which was accepted with pleasure.”
Accepting Modi’s invitation to visit India, Pope Francis said “You have given me the greatest gift. I am looking forward to visiting India.”