Two high-ranking Vatican officials who were slated to address the national assembly of India’s Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCBI) in Bangalore this week have been denied visas by the Indian government.
The annual meeting of the Conference, attended by 140 bishops, is taking place from February 3-9, and the Vatican officials were supposed to arrive in Bangalore on Tuesday.
Archbishop Arthur Roche is a British citizen and secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship in the Vatican, and Archbishop Protase Rugambwa, a Tanzanian, is President of the Pontifical Mission Societies. Both bishops are international experts on liturgy and were key speakers at the conference. They will now be addressing the assembly via videoconferencing.
India’s denial of the visas comes on the heels of a series of attacks on Catholic churches in the nation’s capital and media reports that the government plans to crack down on NGOs funded by the Catholic Church.
Minority groups fear that a rise in Hindu nationalism under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi may be behind the rash of recent vandalism of Catholic churches in the Indian capital. The government has offended religious minorities, most recently by attempting to cancel Christmas.
Modi belongs to the BJP, a right-wing political party with roots in the Hindu fundamentalist group the RSS, accused recently of trying to convert people to Hinduism by force.
According to a spokesman for the Delhi Catholic Union, Father Dominic Emmanuel, “The scenario is pretty bad all over India for Christians and Muslims as well, and this is certainly worrying because this is happening right under the nose of prime minister.”
“These attacks are certainly connected to the right wing Hindu fundamentalists whose voice is getting stronger and have been emboldened by last year’s election of the BJP,” he said.
According to Father Stephen Alathara, a CCBI official, the two archbishops applied for visas in mid-December of last year and were awaiting response from the Indian Embassy. They were informed at the last minute that their visa applications had been rejected “due to technical reasons.”
The Vatican’s Secretary of State attempted to intervene but his appeal failed to move Indian officials to issue the visas.
Sources in India’s Ministry of External Affairs claimed the bishops did not have Vatican passports. “All others coming as representatives of the Vatican were issued visas. The two had applied like any other passport holders. The MEA denied them visas on the advice of the home ministry,” said a source.
While the External Affairs Ministry said the decision had been taken by the Foreigners’ Division of the Karnataka State Home Ministry, there was no response from the division till late on Wednesday evening.
The Home Ministry denied having “blacklisting” the bishops.
Father William Nellikkal of Vatican Radio said that a discussion on liturgy and life is finally happening after 50 years. “The bishops’ presence would have helped the church in India to take the discussions to the next level. Moreover, they are part of the Pope’s congregation,” he said.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome