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Sunday, November 7, 1999 Published at 09:17 GMT

World: South Asia

Pope holds mass in Delhi

Christians are in the minority among Delhi's 13-million-strong population

Pope John Paul II has been holding a mass for an estimated 60,000 members of India's Christian minority in Delhi, as millions of Hindus celebrate their own main religious festival of the year.

The BBC's Mike Wooldridge: "The Pope saw Asia as a new challenge for evangelism"
The mass at the Nehru stadium coincides with Diwali - the high point of the Hindu religious festival season which celebrates the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil.

The Pope's visit to India has highlighted tensions between the Church and some militant Hindu groups which have accused the Roman Catholic Church of forcibly converting poor Indians to Christianity.

The BBC's David Chazan in Delhi said the Pope had made no mention during mass of the conversion issue, concentrating instead on the economic disparities between the developing world and industrialised nations.

[ image: Mr Vajpayee reassured the pontiff over anti-Christian violence]
Mr Vajpayee reassured the pontiff over anti-Christian violence
Addressing followers at the Nehru stadium, the pontiff said more had to be done to help the millions of people who are suffering in Asia and Africa.

Our correspondent says it is possible that the Pope is trying to defuse the tension which arose on Saturday after he insisted that it was the moral duty of Christians to spread the word of the Gospel throughout Asia.

There was some disruption during the mass, when 10 demonstrators from the Hindu revivalist party Shiv Sena gathered outside the stadium and shouted slogans. However they ran away before police could intervene, our correspondent says.

Ceremonies preceding Sunday's mass were laced with Hindu symbolism.

Girls dressed in blue saris from a Catholic school performed a traditional Indian dance as the Pope arrived in his popemobile. Taking a flame from a candle held by Pope John Paul, five people lit an oil lamp, a tradition for the beginning of any Indian ceremony.

[ image: Security has been tight throughout the Pope's visit]
Security has been tight throughout the Pope's visit
Delhi Archbishop Alan de Lastic welcomed the pope with words drawn from Sanskrit text, "Shanti, shanti, shanti," meaning "peace."

The Pope travelled to India to conclude an Asian Synod held in Rome last year and to present a key document - "Ecclesia in Asia" - that will serve as a blueprint for the expansion of the Roman Catholic faith.

He told 200 Asian bishops on Saturday that the Church should continue vigorously to seek to convert the peoples of Asia.

The spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Delhi, Father Dominique Emmanuel, told the BBC what the pontiff had meant was the conversion of minds rather than religion.

'Forced' conversions

Prior to the Pope's visit, fundamentalist groups had protested against what they say are forcible conversions of Hindus to Christianity.

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.

[ image: Hindu protesters object to the Pope's visit]
Hindu protesters object to the Pope's visit
Lokesh Pratap Singh, a leading figure in the Hindu organisation Vishwa Hindu Parishad, on Sunday called for a halt to missionary work aimed at converting Indians.

"We have nothing against the Pope and we welcome him. But we are against conversions and request the Pope to reply on the issue," he told The Statesman paper.

India has seen a surge in anti-Christian violence over the past two years, including attacks on clergy and the burning of church property.

The Hindu nationalist-led government of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has sought to play down opposition to the papal visit.

He reassured the Pope over the anti-Christian violence during their meeting on Saturday.

Mr Vajpayee said: "You know, Holy Father, that India is a land of religious freedom, but we have some intolerant fringes."

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