Vatican City: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday said he had a "very warm meeting" with Pope Francis and discussed a wide range of issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges posed by climate change, and also invited him to visit India at an early date.
Modi also tweeted pictures of him embracing the head of the Roman Catholic church.
"Had a very warm meeting with Pope Francis. I had the opportunity to discuss a wide range of issues with him and also invited him to visit India, Modi tweeted after the historic meeting with the 84-year-old Pontiff.
Pope Francis received Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a private audience at the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, the Ministry of External Affairs said in a press release.
Briefing reporters, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla described the meeting as a "unique occasion" as the last interaction between the Prime Minister of India and the Pope was in June 2000 when the late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee met Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.
"This was a private audience the Prime Minister had with the Pope; the two leaders discussed many topical issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic and health recovery from the pandemic, the issue of climate change and the environment.
"You can judge the warmth of the conversation by the fact that the meeting was to have been for 20 minutes-scheduled but lasted for around an hour," Shringla said.
The Prime Minister invited Pope Francis to visit India at an early date, he said, adding that the Pope has "graciously accepted the Prime Minister's invitation and in his own word, I am paraphrasing, he says 'you have given me the greatest gift, I am looking forward to visiting India.'"
Asked whether the issue of religious freedom in India was discussed between the Pope and the Prime Minister, Shringla said it was a discussion that was devoid of any "extraneous issues".
Noting that the Pope took a lot of time to explain to Modi about the Vatican, about their work, he said, "It's a very unique, I would say, a place which has housed centuries of religious and spiritual objects of reverence for people all over the world. So it (meeting) has to be seen in that context."
"I can assure you that no issue that you (reporter) have said was discussed. It was not a discussion of that nature, it was a discussion that was devoid of any extraneous issues, confined to very warm and convivial conversations between two leaders," he added.
India and The Holy See have friendly relations dating back to the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1948.
India is home to nearly 18 million Catholics, the second largest Catholic population in Asia.
During the meeting, the two leaders discussed the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences for people across the world. They also discussed the challenge posed by climate change, the release said.
The Prime Minister, who is in Italy to attend the G20 Summit, briefed the Pope about the ambitious initiatives taken by India in combating climate change as well as India's success in administering one billion Covid vaccination doses. Prime Minister Modi will also attend the Climate Summit to be held in Glasgow from Sunday.
His Holiness appreciated India's assistance to countries in need during the pandemic, the release said.
Prime Minster extended an invitation to Pope Francis to visit India at an early date, which was accepted with pleasure, it said.
The last Papal Visit happened in 1999 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister and Pope John Paul II came. Now it is during Modi's prime ministerial term that the Pope has been invited to visit India, sources said.
The meeting between Prime Minister Modi and Pope Francis that was scheduled only for 20 minutes went on for an hour, they said.
They discussed a wide range of issues aimed at making the planet better by fighting climate change and removing poverty, sources said.
"During a brief conversation, the cordial relations between the Holy See and India were discussed, the Vatican Press Office said in a brief statement on the meeting between the Pope and Prime Minister Modi.
Subsequently, in the Secretariat of State, Prime Minister Modi greeted Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Security of Relations with States, it added.
At the Vatican, Modi was accompanied by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.
According to the Vatican News, Prime Minister Modi gifted the Pope a specially-made silver candelabra and a book, The Climate Climb: India's strategy, actions and achievements" during their meeting which lasted for an hour.
The Pope reciprocated with a bronze plaque with the inscription The desert will become a garden, volumes of papal documents, his message for World Day of Peace and the document on Human Fraternity, signed on February 4 of 2019 in Abu Dhabi by the Pope and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, it said.
Meanwhile, the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council (KCBC), a body of Catholic Bishops in the state, on Saturday welcomed the meeting between Prime Minister Modi and Pope Francis, saying the decision to invite the Pontiff to India was a historic one.
"Inviting Pope Francis to India was a historic decision and this will raise the stature of the country among the nations of the world. His visit will help to strengthen the diplomatic relation between both the countries. It will also help to nurture the relationship between various sects of Christianity and other religions," KCBC said in a press release in Kochi.
Cardinal Mar George Alenchery, the president of the KCBC, said all Indians, especially Christians, are glad to learn about the invitation extended by Modi.
"We hope the Pope will visit India soon. The Pope's visit will pave the way for fostering brotherhood and co-operation in a pluralistic India," Alenchery said.