The devout Hindu villagers were in an angry mood as they waited for a caravan that has been traveling across India before Pope John Paul II's planned visit to New Delhi this week, demanding that the pope apologize for past "atrocities" and halt "forced conversions" by Christian missionaries.
"The Christian people come to our villages, they tear up photographs of our gods and say that their Christ is a super-God. We are Hindus and we will not allow this to go on," declared Khom Singh Bhai, a tribal leader from a nearby village in Madhya Pradesh state, as dozens of men in turbans and loincloths nodded in agreement.
"We have heard that this John Papa is coming. It is his followers who are killing cows and converting people, and we want him to stop it," added Sama Bhelji, a farmer waiting to welcome the caravan, which was organized by a Hindu coalition called the Cultural Protection Forum.
At midafternoon Thursday, word came that police had stopped the convoy as it tried to enter Madhya Pradesh from a neighboring state. Officials said they were worried it would cause trouble, partly because of lingering tension from the rape of an Indian nun in Jhabua one year ago.
The caravan leaders were left fuming on a lonely stretch of highway, the welcome rally was dispersed by police and the villagers eventually returned home. On a larger scale, however, authorities in New Delhi have been unable to quell the uproar over the pope's two-day visit, which is scheduled to begin Saturday.
Over the past two weeks, Hindu activist groups have held protest rallies, burned the pontiff in effigy and spread pamphlets accusing the Vatican of trying to "take over India," destroy Hinduism and carve the country into pieces.
The pope, who visited India without incident in 1986, has said he will travel here in the spirit of "religious harmony." He will hold two days of meetings in New Delhi with Asian Roman Catholic Church officials and say Mass on Sunday at a stadium. He also has invited leaders of all faiths in India to a meeting.
Roman Catholic Church officials said the visit has no special agenda, but it comes at a time of heightened concern about attacks on Christian clergy in India and of growing opposition to Christian missionary work by some Hindu groups. Since January, an Australian Baptist missionary and an Indian priest have been killed in rural areas.
The controversy over the pope's visit has been especially awkward for officials of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who took office as a new government just two weeks ago. The party grew out of an aggressive pro-Hindu movement but gradually distanced itself from those roots in search of national and foreign acceptance. Now, the BJP is struggling to meet the demands of statesmanship and secular allies without alienating its religious supporters.
On Thursday, a furor over the papal visit erupted in Parliament, with secular opposition leaders shouting down BJP officials in the lower house and staging a walkout in the upper house. Finally, Home Minister L. K. Advani, long known as a BJP Hindu hard-liner, was forced to denounce the Hindu groups' protests, while Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh said he hoped the pope's visit would be a "glittering success."
Many local Catholic officials said most Hindus are not concerned with the pope's visit and are not worried about Christian activities in India. About 2 percent of India's 1 billion people are Christian, while about 85 percent are Hindu. Moreover, Christian missions have long educated many of India's elite and provided health and social services for its neglected rural poor.
"It's a free country, so everyone has the right to protest, but I would like to see an occasional word of praise" for the years of useful work of Christian groups in India, Archbishop Alan de Lastic of New Delhi said last week.
De Lastic brushed off allegations of forced conversions, saying the term "sounds like a square circle to me. Conversion . . . cannot be forced on anyone."
Critics suggested that a few ardent Hindu groups are manipulating the issue for political reasons, in part because they feel threatened by the BJP's growing secular nature. Others have found the hue and cry silly, suggesting that hard-line Hindus are stuck in a religious time warp, just when their leaders are finally in a position to tackle issues of far more importance to the nation.
"Enough already!" cried the Indian Express newspaper in a lead editorial Thursday, condemning the protests as a "hysterically bizarre" case of religious paranoia. The pope, a "near-octogenarian nursing Parkinson's disease, a bad hip and a bullet wound," is hardly threat to India's dominant religion, the paper said.
Even if their numbers are small, however, the fundamentalist Hindu groups have devoted considerable resources to the anti-pope campaign. They have issued carefully researched papers detailing what they consider Christian misdeeds in India, and have widely circulated tracts in Hindi that warn of a conspiracy by missionaries to seduce the poor, undermine Hindu values and break up India.
The message has penetrated deep into communities across the country, arousing anger and fear among devout Hindus from all classes. Even in towns like Jhabua, where Christians and Hindus have gotten along peaceably for years, middle-class leaders and tribal villagers said they have read or heard about past church abuses, such as the killings of tens of thousands of Hindus who resisted conversion by Portuguese missionaries in Goa in the 16th century.
"I have read about the atrocities committed in Goa, so it must be true. We are not against the pope visiting, but we want him to apologize for it," said Uhdav Girvani, 61, a retired government accountant, doll maker and longtime Hindu activist in Jhabua. Local leaders also angrily repeated tales of alleged deceptions and insults by Christian clergy and followers in contemporary times, from the smashing of Hindu animal god statues to the use of fake miracles to win converts.
Girvani said he was especially concerned that small Christian missions had grown into large enterprises that denigrate Hinduism and propagate Christianity.
"They mock our gods and they trick people who are ignorant and helpless," he said with indignation. "When we see them becoming more aggressive and spreading their wings in our area, we feel pain in our hearts."
Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Uhdav Girvani, 61, a Hindu activist and doll maker in Jhabua, says the pope should apologize for what Girvani considers past church abuses in India.
CAPTION: Tribal leader Khom Singh Bhai says that missionaries insult Hindu gods and must be prevented from converting villagers.