Pope's India Visit Ends on Note of Unity
Pope's India Visit Ends on Note of Unity
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 8, 1999; Page A15
DELHI, Nov. 7 Pope John Paul II's weekend visit to India
concluded today in an atmosphere of religious harmony and unity, as the
pontiff celebrated Mass with tens of thousands of followers and later
received a reverent welcome from leaders of Hinduism and seven other
The capital crackled throughout the day with the sounds of fireworks
celebrating the annual Hindu festival of Diwali, but there was no sign
of public protest against the pope's presence. Some radical Hindu groups
had denounced the pontiff in the past several weeks, demanding that he
stop "forced conversions" of Christians in India and apologize for past
"I come among you as a pilgrim of peace," John Paul said at an
interfaith meeting tonight, seated on a dais with a saffron-robed Hindu
priest on his left. "My presence among you is a sign that the Catholic
Church wants to enter dialogue with the religions of the world."
The 79-year-old pope, whose voice was slurred and hands were
shaking, did not explicitly mention the controversy his visit has
caused, or the killings of two Christian missionaries since January. But
he warned that "religion must not become a pretext for conflict" and
that people of all faiths must shun the "path of isolation and
In turn, Indian leaders of the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh,
Muslim, Jain, Parsee, Jewish and Bahai faiths extended prayers of
welcome to the pope, and several of them echoed his call for peace and
cooperation among world religions.
Shankaracharya M. Saraswati, the Hindu priest, said
Hinduism seeks to spread love and compassion, and he asked the pope to
help "spread the culture of this land" abroad.
"All minority communities in India consider ourselves
Indian first, then Jews and Sikhs and Muslims," said Rabbi Ezekial Isaac
Malekar. "Your visit to India will boost understanding and cooperation
among religions in the struggle to eliminate poverty, ignorance,
persecution and discrimination."
India, with a population of 1 billion, is more than 80
percent Hindu. Christians make up less than 3 percent of the population,
far less than Muslims and Sikhs, but some Hindu groups have expressed
fears that Christian groups seek to dominate the country and turn Hindus
into a minority.
Earlier in the day, the ailing pontiff presided over a
three-hour Mass in New Delhi's largest outdoor sports stadium, where
white-robed priests delivered communion to tens of thousands of
Christians in the bleachers. Security was extremely tight, with each
visitor searched repeatedly, and all 65,000 Indians who were admitted
had to enter the stadium with a ticket approved by their home
During the service, the pope and other speakers repeatedly
drew parallels between Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, and the
biblical theme of light conquering darkness and evil. Some Hindu groups
had complained that it was an insult to their religion to have the
pope's second visit to India in 13 years coincide with Diwali.
A number of Christians in the crowd said they were saddened
by the recent outbreak of hostility against missionary work in India.
Many were from the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where
Christian missions have long been credited with improving education,
health care and living standards.
"There seems to be some hurt being felt, as if the
conversion were a forceful act, but I have never seen one. I believe
this visit will dispel the doubts of the people," said Ranji Abraham,
36, an engineer from a Catholic family in Kerala.
The Mass was punctuated by English and Hindi hymns,
traditional dances from across Asia, and prayers offered in Japanese,
Chinese, Thai, Tagalog and other Asian languages. The stadium service
was also adapted for Hindu culture, with priests ringing bells and
showering petals in traditional temple rituals. But most Hindus in the
capital, busy visiting their own temples, exchanging sweets and lighting
firecrackers for Diwali, were unaware of the gesture.
The pope's visit was largely planned around a meeting of
Asian bishops, similar to meetings he has held with African and Latin
American bishops. During the meeting on Saturday, the pontiff issued a
call to bishops to spread Christianity throughout Asia.
John Paul heads to Georgia on Monday for a 30-hour visit
that has stirred opposition among some conservative clergymen in the
mainly Christian Orthodox former Soviet republic.
©Copyright 1999, Washington Post
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