Pope John Paul II, arriving in India today to one of the most low-key welcomes of his 89 trips abroad, began a three-day visit clouded by controversy over Roman Catholic evangelism and anti-Christian violence.
The 79-year-old pope stepped carefully from the special Alitalia flight at Indira Gandhi International Airport and was met by Deputy Foreign Minister Ajit Kumar Panja.
While a group of senior Asian Catholic prelates applauded when the pope emerged from the aircraft, there was no crowd of the faithful or music and singing, which traditionally mark the start of a papal visit.
The pope's second visit to India, which comes amid an increase in attacks against Christians and Muslims here, has triggered a debate about the conversions of poor, mostly illiterate Hindus to Christianity. Some groups say the conversions are done through coercion.
As the pope left Rome for New Delhi, where he has been burned in effigy, the Vatican issued a statement calling for "collaboration" between India's 820 million Hindus and 23 million Christians. But before he even touched down, the right-wing World Hindu Council renewed its demand that the pontiff withdraw foreign missionaries from India.
Chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, speaking to reporters aboard the papal airliner, said the attacks on Christians constitutes a human rights issue that India must deal with.
"It is a small problem numerically, but it is a very serious problem, too," Navarro-Valls said. "The biggest democracy in the world is faced with a problem of whether or not to recognize freedom for everyone."