Due to a technical problem, a headline in late editions of yesterday's world page was missing a word. The headline should have read: "In India Visit, Pope Appeals For Tolerance." (Published 11/08/1999)
Pope John Paul II, undeterred by a drumbeat of protests from Hindu radicals, tonight urged Roman Catholic leaders in Asia to heed the Christian "call to conversion" and work to "penetrate the hearts of Asian peoples," even in countries that are scarred by religious conflict.
"Let no one fear the church!" he said, addressing an assembly of regional bishops during the first day of his controversial weekend visit to India. He declared that the right to "freedom of belief and worship" must be respected across South Asia, and that it is God's "command to preach the Gospel" to all nations.
The ailing pontiff's words, though solemn and spiritual in tone, rang in defiance of the radical Hindu groups that have been protesting for the past several weeks against his visit, calling for a halt to what they call "forced conversions" by Christian missionaries and demanding that the pope apologize for historical abuses by the Roman Catholic Church. He has made similar speeches to bishops in Africa and the Americas in the past year.
In a raucous demonstration here Friday that coincided with his arrival, a coalition of Hindu groups criticized the pontiff and compared Christian conversions of Hindus to rape.
"When you convert one person, you produce an enemy," declared Vishwas Joglekar, a Hindu leader who addressed the rally. He warned that Christian missionaries seek to divide India, and that they are motivated by greed and ambition rather than spiritual service. "We don't want another of our limbs to be cut off," he said to the cheers of several hundred followers.
The Indian government, which is providing security for the 62-hour papal visit, has condemned the protesters and insisted that the pontiff is a welcome guest. Spokesmen for the Vatican and the Archdiocese of New Delhi have dismissed the critics as a small minority, saying their real motive is to prevent India's downtrodden masses from being "uplifted" by Christianity.
During his first day here, the pope met with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who heads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as well as the president and vice president. Church spokesmen here said the meetings were cordial and that the Indian officials "showed great respect for the pope."
In his only public event of the day, John Paul visited the national memorial for Mohandas K. Gandhi, the legendary Indian leader and peace champion, laying a wreath at the site and quoting Gandhi as saying that no culture can survive "if it attempts to be exclusive." The 79-year-old pope, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, appeared to try to kneel at the memorial but was unable to do so.
Only one public disturbance was reported. Several young men associated with a Hindu group called the Shiv Sena shouted anti-pope slogans outside the Gandhi memorial. They were arrested.
(On Sunday morning, the pontiff celebrated Mass for tens of thousands of people at Nehru Memorial Stadium, where the public was warned that all bottles of water and milk for infants would be confiscated for security reasons. He will meet with Indian religious leaders in the evening, and is scheduled to leave early Monday.)
The pope's visit has generated intense controversy among Hindus who apparently fear the growing impact of Christian missionary work here, especially among poor and neglected rural Indians. Although less than 3 percent of all Indians are Christian, the groups say they fear a Christian "conspiracy" to destroy Hinduism.
In recent months, an Australian Baptist missionary and an Indian priest have been killed and several other Christian clerics have been attacked. The government has condemned the killings, but no one has been charged for the crimes.
The Hindu activist groups have called on the pope to apologize for the mistreatment and killing of thousands of Indians in the 16th century. But in tonight's speech, there was no apology in the pontiff's message to the gathering of Asian bishops in New Delhi's Sacred Heart Cathedral.
On the contrary, while expressing admiration for the "passionate" spirituality of the subcontinent, he pointedly praised the "host of Asian martyrs" who have died for the Christian cause. To condemn religion as the cause of violence, he said, is a "travesty of true belief. . . . Let the right to freedom of belief and worship be respected in every part of this continent."
Some Hindus have been irked by the timing of the visit, which comes during the annual Hindu festival of lights known as Diwali. Church spokesmen have insisted the timing was mere coincidence, and that the visit was planned in accordance with the Indian government's preferred schedule.
Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Pope John Paul II listens to the national anthems of India and the Vatican at a welcoming ceremony in New Delhi.