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Saturday, November 6, 1999 Published at 19:06 GMT

World: South Asia

Pope urges spread of Catholicism

Hindu protesters object to the Pope's visit and to Catholic missionaries

Pope John Paul II has called on Asian governments to guarantee religious freedom, while urging his bishops to spread the Christian message across the continent.

The BBC's David Chazan reports: "The authorities are taking no chances with security"
The Pope, speaking to about 200 Asian bishops in Delhi's Sacred Heart Cathedral, released an Asian Synod paper that will serve as a blueprint for the expansion of the Roman Catholic faith.

Earlier in the day, the pontiff met India's President KR Narayanan and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who assured him of their commitment to religious tolerance and upholding the country's secular constitution.

[ image: The Pope prays at Delhi's Sacred Heart Cathedral]
The Pope prays at Delhi's Sacred Heart Cathedral
On his first visit to India in 13 years, the Pope called on the bishops to step up evangelisation, particularly to the poor and disenfranchised.

John Paul II made it clear the church would renounce none of its principles, as he denounced attempts to introduce abortion and population control programmes in Asia as a "culture of death".

He also denounced violence in the name of religion as a "travesty of true belief".

About 1,500 incidents of violence against Christians have been reported in the past two years, including the gruesome murder of an Australian missionary and his two young sons in January.

The Pope also sent a message of support to the Catholics persecuted in mainland China.

[ image:  ]
The Vatican estimates that five million mainland Chinese practice the religion underground.

John Paul urged them never to "allow hardship and sorrow to diminish your devotion to Christ".

No bishop from mainland China was allowed to travel to Delhi, but two came from Hong Kong, the pope's original choice for the bishops' meeting.

The 79-year-old pontiff, clearly fatigued, sat slumped in a red velvet chair during most of the 90-minute meeting.

While acknowledging that Christ is often perceived as "foreign" in Asia, he said: "The peoples of Asia need Jesus Christ and his Gospel. Asia is thirsting for the living water that Jesus alone can give."

Protests mark visit

His encouragement for evangelism came at a time when supporters of fundamentalist Hindu groups have protested against what they say are forcible conversions.

[ image: Hindu fundamentalists have promised more protests]
Hindu fundamentalists have promised more protests
Groups like Shiv Sena say poor, often illiterate and lower caste Hindus are told if they convert, they will be able to get medical treatment from Christian hospitals and education for their children at church-run schools.

The church denies using unethical inducements to win converts.

Radical Hindus demanded an end to missionary activity and an apology for the alleged massacre of Hindus 400 years ago.

There was no hint of apology in the Pope's 29-page speech.

Missionaries have operated unhindered in India for hundreds of years, but are restricted or barred in China, Vietnam, Burma, Laos and some Islamic countries.

Security tight

[ image: Tight security is in force throughout the Pope's visit]
Tight security is in force throughout the Pope's visit
An extra 3,500 paramilitary troops have been called in to ensure maximum security for all the venues on the pontiff's itinerary.

Policemen stood guard at the Sacred Heart cathedral and black-clad commandos searched for explosives at the Nehru stadium where the Pope will celebrate mass on Sunday.

Minutes before the Pope arrived to pay his respects at independence leader Mahatma Gandhi's memorial, police arrested three activists.

The activists briefly waved black flags and chanted "Stop conversions!" before being bundled into a van and driven away.

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