Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet Pope Francis in Rome for the first time this weekend when he visits for the G20 summit, officials said on Thursday, in what could be a thorny encounter.
Activists say that religious minorities in Hindu-majority 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 per cent of the population, have borne the brunt, Christians, who account for just over two per cent, have also suffered a rise in reported violent attacks.
Under the pretext that Christians are seeking to forcibly convert Hindus, more than 300 violent incidents have been recorded this year, according to a report by a group of non-governmental organisations released this month.
This included a reported attack on a prayer house by around 200 members of the BJP and Hindu groups in the northern state of Uttarakhand in early October.
The local head of the BJP said the prayer house held “suspicious gatherings”.
In March, a mob of Hindu radicals in the central state of Chhattisgarh attacked with axes, stones and wooden clubs around 150 people in a church, leaving eight people seriously injured, according to reports.
In August in the same state, a mob of around 100 people beat up a pastor and vandalised his house while the following month, a crowd forced their way into a police station and assaulted a priest who was being questioned.
At least three states run by the BJP have passed legislation aimed at preventing “forced conversion” and dozens of people have been arrested. Others plan to follow suit including Karnataka where priests have come out in protest.
In 2020, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom listed India as a “country of particular concern” for the first time since 2004.
Modi's government rejects having a Hindu agenda and insists that people of all religions have equal rights.
Announcing the meeting with the head of the Catholic Church, which has also been confirmed for Saturday by the Vatican, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla only said that it was “very important”.
After the G20 gathering, Modi is due to leave for Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit.