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 faiths.
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 church abuses.
"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 division."
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 parish.
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.
CAPTION: Pope John Paul II waves from his Popemobile to worshipers at Nehru Stadium in New Delhi, where he celebrated Mass on the last day of his India visit.
CAPTION: Pope John Paul II, left, greets Sikh leader Bhai Manjit Singh Sahib, center, and Hindu religious leader Shankaracharya M. Saraswati.