VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Indian Christians are exploding with outrage after the Vatican released photographs of Pope Francis and India's anti-Christian prime minister Narendra Modi clasped in a warm embrace.
India's religious minorities and secular-minded Hindus — who regard Modi as a racist, populist, nationalist and Hindu-supremacist politician — recoiled in horror at the images of Modi and Francis during a papal audience Saturday.
Christians asked if Francis had addressed the persecution of minorities that has peaked under Modi, with Christians and Muslims ending up "harassed, arrested, beaten, raped or dead," a July report by researchers from the London School of Economics (LSE) noted.
Indian Catholics posted memes dovetailing Francis' meeting with Modi with propaganda images released by the Nazi regime showing photographs of Adolf Hitler warmly greeting high-ranking Vatican officials with the caption: "History repeats itself."
Other Christians compared the embrace to the "kiss of Judas," as Hindus responded with mock images of Modi wearing papal robes and holding the pope's crosier — hailing the ultra-right-wing leader as "Modi the pope."
"Francis welcomed two murderers in one morning with only affirmations and no call for repentance," a Catholic priest from South India told Church Militant on condition of anonymity. "Narendra Modi's policies kill Christians and Muslims; Joe Biden policies massacre unborn babies."
Alerting Church Militant to the "Niagara of memes on social media," former president of the 102-year-old All India Catholic Union John Dayal explained how "the responses to [Francis meeting Modi] sharply delineated the fault lines in the Christian community in India."
Dayal, a two-term member of the prime minister's National Integration Council, observed:
The two cardinals in Kerala are jubilant, the remainder of Catholics underwhelmed, the denominational and independent churches phlegmatic, a section of the Muslim population apprehensive and civil society a little annoyed.
Filmmaker Anand Patwardhan quite correctly asked if the pope gave the Indian PM an earful on the custodial death of octogenarian and ailing Fr. Stan Swamy, arrested on fake charges and repeatedly denied bail. Stan belonged to the Society of Jesus, of which Pope Francis is also a member. The Jesuits had lobbied internationally for the release of Fr. Stan.
Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, former president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) claimed the meeting would enhance "human fraternity and caring for the poor because that's what Christianity stands for."
"It would bring in positive efforts in India for a mutual trust and collaboration between people of different religious groups. It would also contribute to the very need for dialogue," the cardinal told The Indian Express.
But Chennai-based Dr. Joshua Iyadurai, director of the Marina Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Religion, told Church Militant "the hug will not heal the wounds of the persecuted Church in India."
"I am surprised that the pope was silent on human rights violations against religious minorities, the Dalits [untouchables], the marginalized and human rights activists, including Fr. Stan Swamy," Iyadurai said.
"The hug is great optics for the forthcoming Goa election, where Catholics constitute 25% of the population," he added, explaining that Modi's invitation to Francis to visit India "could be with an eye on the next general election."
Modi's invitation to Francis to visit India and the pope's acceptance of this visit comes after the prime minister repeatedly snubbed Indian bishops who asked him to permit the pontiff to visit India.
Earlier, LSE ethnographers found "thoroughly evidenced experiences of exclusion, discrimination, harassment, bullying, intimidation, violence, and injustice," with Indian Christians and Muslims living under "imminent existential threat."
"Vigilante mob lynchings and attacks, state harassment, attempts to drive Muslims and Christians from their land and their homes, and censorship have not lessened, but are rather metamorphosing in new and disturbing ways," the researchers reported, pointing a finger at "the dominance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the national level."
Historian Christophe Jaffrelot, in his book Modi's India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy, shows how Modi has moved India towards a Hindu nationalist democracy that "equates the majoritarian community with the nation and relegates Muslims and Christians to second-class citizens who are harassed by vigilante groups."
Modi became a permanent member and activist in India's extremist far-right paramilitary Hindu organization — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Jaffrelot writes, explaining how the RSS merges Hinduism with nationalism, viewing India as a sacred land as much as a motherland.
While Francis has repeatedly attacked Western leaders like former U.S. President Donald Trump, Hungary's Viktor Orbán, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro and Italy's Matteo Salvini as populists and nationalists, he has remained silent on Modi's extreme Hindu populist and nationalist politics.
As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was accused of initiating and condoning the infamous intercommunal "Godhra riots" that led to 1,044 dead, 223 missing and 2,500 injured.
In 2005, invoking a law passed in 1998 that makes foreign officials responsible for "severe violations of religious freedom" ineligible for visas, the United States Department of State banned Modi in 2005 from traveling to the United States due to his alleged role in the attacks.
In a peer-reviewed study of 35 documents, Dr. Prashant Waikar, senior analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, examines how Modi articulates "Hindutva's conception of a racialized hierarchy."
"Modi has a racial preference for whom he hugs, which is borne out by the figures from Africa," a study in The Caravan notes.
Modi has only visited eight of Africa's 54 countries and "Uhuru Kenyatta, the president of Kenya, is the only African leader he has hugged. On his two trips to South America, he did not hug the leaders of Argentina and Brazil."
"He has been photographed meeting the leaders of 71 countries but has only hugged those of 23 countries," the study concludes, observing that Modi tends to limit his hugs to nations' leaders who are either wealthy or white.
Reporting on the meeting, Vatican News made no reference to Modi's violently anti-Christian and Islamophobic reign of terror.
The Holy See Press Office issued a terse note stating: "During a brief conversation, the cordial relations between the Holy See and India were discussed."
A Vatican insider told Church Militant "Francis' meetings with world leaders are tightly choreographed, and no picture is unintentionally or accidentally released."
"If the pope did not want the world to see him hugging Modi, the images would not have been published," he added.