The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, is expected to offer the kind of apology Theresa May felt unable to give as prime minister for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre when he undertakes a 10-day trip to India.
The visit will begin in Kottayam in Kerala on August 31 and take in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Medak in the south and Jabalpur in central India (“where Christians appear confident”, Welby’s advance party found).
The Archbishop will be in Kolkata on September 8, attending Sunday service at St Paul’s Cathedral, a local landmark, but there will be no time to go to Mother Teresa’s home.
The next day he will leave for Amritsar, where he will visit the Golden Temple and Jallianwala Bagh, scene of the notorious massacre on April 13, 1919 in which a third of the victims were Sikh, with the rest Hindu with some Muslims as well.
He will give a “transparent account of what happened”, his officials said, aware his comments would have “ramifications” as far as the Indian diaspora in the UK was concerned.
Welby, it was made clear, has no intention of “challenging” prime minister Narendra Modi about the alleged persecution of Indian Christians since he will be visiting India as “a religious leader, not as a political leader”. But he will listen to their experiences and, if there is a message to deliver, he will do so in as careful and diplomatic a manner as possible.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is the senior bishop and principal leader of the Church of England, the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion and the diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Canterbury.
Welby, is the 105th in a line which goes back more than 1400 years to Augustine of Canterbury, the “Apostle to the English”, sent from Rome in the year 597.
In a statement, Welby said: “My prayer is that this visit will first and foremost provide opportunities for me to pray with local Christians; secondly, I want to listen to the stories of local people, to hear the joys and challenges they face in their daily life; and, finally, I am looking forward to visiting key places of worship and significance.
“India has a long and distinguished Christian history, going back as early as the first century when Saint Thomas is said to have travelled to Kerala. I am looking forward to learning from the Church in India and sharing in their worship.”
Although the Archbishop has been invited by the Church of South India and the Church of North India, there is a political dimension to the visit.
As former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said “we can and must do more” for persecuted Christians all over the world and appointed the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Reverend Philip Mounstephen, to report to him.
Officials said violence against Christians was rising dramatically, with an average of 250 killed every month.
Although Pakistan is an obvious target as well as countries in the Middle East, India could also come in for criticism.
Dominic Raab has replaced Hunt as foreign secretary but on this question, British policy is unlikely to change.
The issued was being handled by Tory peer Lord Tariq Ahmad, a minister of state at the foreign office, who is of Pakistani origin himself and an Ahmadiya Muslim. He has been retained in his old job.
Welby will be accompanied by his wife, Caroline, as well as Richard Sudworth and William Adam, his top advisers on inter-religious and ecumenical affairs respectively.
Messrs Sudworth and Adam, were at Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop’s residence on Tuesday (30), where they briefed a group of journalists, mainly religious affairs correspondents.
The BBC’s religious affairs correspondent, Martin Bashir, who is a Pakistani Christian, asked whether the Archbishop would challenge Modi about the persecution of Christians in India. Another journalist wondered whether Indian Christians would feel let down if the Archbishop failed to do so.
The response from Sudworth and Adam was: “He is not going as a political leader – he is going as a religious leader. What we don’t want to be doing is lecturing another country.”
But Welby would meet a wide cross-section of Indian Christians and listen to their experiences.