03/17/2024, 13.01
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Goa wants to invite Pope Francis to the exposition of the relics of Saint Francis Xavier

Goa’s BJP chief minister has asked the Prime Minister Modi to renew the invitation he made in 2021 to the pope to visit India. Set for 21 November 2024-5 January 2025, the decennial exposition attracts thousands of pilgrims from all over India. But some fear the announcement is just an electioneering move to woo Christian voters in the coming spring general elections.

Goa (AsiaNews) – Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant said on Friday that the state government will ask the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to invite Pope Francis to visit the city for the decennial exposition of the relics of Saint Francis Xavier, which will be held in Goa from 21 November 2024 to 5 January 2025.

Chief Minister Sawant chaired a meeting of the coordination committee set up to oversee preparations for the event. Speaking to journalists, he said that during Prime Minister Narendra  Modi’s meeting at the Vatican in October 2021, the PM had invited Pope Francis to visit India.

Sawant, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, made his announcement at a time when the country is in the middle of the countrywide general election.

As per established practice, to make it easier for almost a billion Indian voters to cast their ballot, the election will be held in seven phases starting on 19 April to 1 June; for Goa, the vote is set for 7 May.

For this reason, the chief minister’s words have raised eyebrows, with the opposition accusing the BJP of using the exposition of the relics of St Francis Xavier to woo Christian voters.

During the meeting of the coordinating committee, which was attended by the priests from the basilica and officials of the Archaeological Survey of India, it was decided to speed up preparations.

Sawant announced that a visitor information centre would open on 15 April and accommodations would be made available. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims are expected to visit the decennial exhibition of the relics kept in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa City.

The Goa State government has allocated a budget of Rs 100 million (US$ 1.2 million) for the event, while other funds would be diverted from other departments, the chief minister added.

For its part, the Union (federal) government recently launched a plan to develop services at the basilica, as part of the Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive (PRASAD) programme of the Ministry of Tourism.

The project includes the investment of more than Rs 170 million (US$ 2 million) to build a parking lot and a museum dedicated to the basilica’s historical heritage. However, this move has been harshly criticised by local activists, who called it an electioneering initiative.

The basilica area has long been at the centre of a bitter controversy over a bungalow built by a BJP spokesman and  a project for a resort right in Old Goa, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“If the State government loves Goycho Saib (Lord of Goa), then they have to prepare a Master Plan for Old Goa to protect our only UNESCO world heritage site and stop illegal constructions,” said Peter Viegas, Save Old Goa Action Committee coordinator.

The government should first demolish the illegal bungalow and stop constructions like laterite resort project, helipad, jetties, garbage plant, heritage interpretation centre, ODP etc. We suspect that the government has hidden agenda,” Viegas added.

For Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) State convenor Adv Amit Palekar, “These projects are politically motivated things. Some time back BJP's chief spokesperson, during a debate, had made a statement that St Francis Xavier was [a] pioneer of [the] inquisition. Suddenly when the elections are coming close, they feel love for St Francis Xavier.”

Palekar also noted that, “If they were really interested in showing that they care for all this, they should have first looked after the illegal construction of the office bearer of the BJP. This is just a fake love as elections are close by just to appease the people of Goa. They will forget once the elections are over.'”

Notwithstanding the political controversy, the exposition of the relics of Saint Francis Xavier is a major spiritual event that draws thousands of people from all over India as well as other countries. Card Felipe Neri Ferrao, Archbishop of Goa, announced this year's exposition in November 2022 in a special decree.

“This time, the archbishop has announced the exposition two years in advance keeping in mind a two-fold purpose: firstly, to step up the renewal of Christian life at all levels in the archdiocese, and secondly, to give sufficient time for pilgrims to plan their journey,” said at the time Fr Barry Cardozo, director of the diocesan centre for social communications media.

“For the Catholic faithful in Goa and Daman, the upcoming exposition is a God-given opportunity to learn to walk together as pilgrims of hope. The two years of spiritual preparation leading to the exposition will focus on walking with the poor and the marginalised, walking with peoples of all faiths and cultures, and walking in harmony with creation,” Cardozo explained.

“St Francis, a man of knowledge and expertise, fame, and rank, is a constant reminder that nothing has the power to affect change as much as love and compassion. His noble life and his abiding presence among us are an aide memoire that it is only a personal encounter with Christ that makes us his true disciples,” Cardozo added.

Meanwhile, although no official announcement has been made, the Vatican is already working on a papal visit to Asia and Oceania, possibly in September, a demanding effort for Pope Francis given his current health situation.

The trip would include apostolic visits to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Timor Leste, the three countries the pontiff was supposed to visit in 2020, but could not due to the pandemic.

It is also possible that the tour might include a stop in Singapore and an official invitation from Vietnam.

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