ROME (AP) — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday invited Pope Francis to visit the country, extending an official opening after plans for a 2017 papal visit fell apart.
Modi made the invitation Saturday during an unusually long, 55-minute audience with Francis at the Vatican. Modi is in Rome for the Group of 20 summit.
There are roughly 18 million Catholics in India, a small minority in the largely Hindu nation of 1.3 billion. Modi’s hard-line, Hindu nationalist government was returned to power for a second term in 2019.
“Had a very warm meeting with Pope Francis," Modi tweeted. “I had the opportunity to discuss a wide range of issues with him and also invited him to visit India.”
The foreign ministry spokesman, Arindam Bagchi, tweeted the invitation was to come visit “at an early date."
The Vatican’s official communique said only that Modi’s visit with the Vatican’s secretary of state was brief and that “the cordial relations between the Holy See and India were discussed.” It made no mention of the invitation or of the content of Modi's meeting with the pontiff.
Francis had hoped to visit India and Bangladesh in 2017. After negotiations with the Indian government dragged on, Francis went instead to Bangladesh and Myanmar. Upon his return to Rome from that trip, Francis acknowledged he had wanted to go to India but that “procedures became protracted, and time was pressing."
But he said it was actually “providential" because “visiting India requires one journey: you must go to the south, to the center, to the east, to the west, to the north for the diverse cultures of India."
He said at the time that he hoped to go in 2018 “if I’m still alive!"
Modi's meeting Saturday with Francis — which the Vatican closed to independent media, citing coronavirus restrictions — appeared warm based on Vatican photographs Modi tweeted showing the two men embracing on several occasions.
During the encounter, Modi gave Francis a silver candelabra and a book, “The Climate Climb: India's strategy, actions and achievements." Francis gave Modi a collection of his main teaching documents and a bronze medallion featuring a tree and the words in Italian “The desert will become a garden."
Hussain reported from Srinagar, India.
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