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Sunday, November 7, 1999 Published at 18:13 GMT

World: South Asia

Pope defends conversions in India

Farewell: Pope John Paul II leaves India

Pope John Paul II has left India after a two-day visit during which he called on followers to spread Christianity across South Asia.

He has moved on to Georgia - another country with only a tiny Catholic community.

Before he left India, the Pope insisted that the Catholic church had a right to continue missionary work in Asia, saying conversion should be recognised as a human right.

Rome correspondent David Willey: "A heavy security cordon"
Hindu activists protested against the Pope's visit, accusing Catholic missionaries of coercing poorer Indians into converting to Catholicism. They demanded that the Pope order a moratorium on conversions.

But the Pope made clear that evangelisation in Asia remained a priority for the Catholic church in the next century.

[ image: Security was tight throughout the visit]
Security was tight throughout the visit
"No state, no group has the right to control either directly or indirectly a person's religious convictions ... or the respectful appeal of a particular religion to people's free conscience," he told an inter-faith meeting attended by Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians, Jews and Bahais.

"Religious freedom constitutes the very heart of human rights. Its inviolability is such that individuals must be recognised as having the right to change their religion if their conscience so demands," he added.

On Saturday, the Pope insisted that it was the moral duty of Christians to spread the word of the Gospel throughout Asia.

Activists respond

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council, which orchestrated demonstrations in advance of the visit said the Pope's comments were "an abuse of hospitality".

The BBC's Mike Wooldridge: "The Pope saw Asia as a new challenge for evangelism"
"The Pope came to India specifically to further the Christian idea of conversion. We will not allow this to happen," spokesman Lokesh Pratap Singh said.

Other religious leaders also made veiled criticisms.

"Religious people are more busy in increasing the number of their followers rather than paying attention to the challenges besetting religion," Jainist guru Acharya Mahaprajna told reporters.

"Everyone is free to propagate their religion but nobody should press anybody," Sikh holy man Bhai Manjit Singh said.

Catholic officials deny any efforts to force conversions.

The Press Trust of India said three activists of the Hindu hardline Shiv Sena party were arrested outside the inter-faith meeting, as they staged a protest against conversions. Three others had been arrested on Saturday.

Festival of lights

[ image: Hindu activists burned Christian symbols ahead of the Pope's speech]
Hindu activists burned Christian symbols ahead of the Pope's speech
The Pope's other main theme during the meeting was the need for greater dialogue between religions to promote peace.

Earlier, he held a mass for an estimated 60,000 members of India's Christian minority in Delhi.

The mass at the Nehru stadium coincided with Diwali - the high point of the Hindu religious festival season, which celebrates the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil.

Addressing the congregation, the pontiff said more had to be done to help the millions of people suffering in Asia and Africa.

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

[ image: Hindu protesters objected to the Pope's visit]
Hindu protesters objected to the Pope's visit
Girls from a Catholic school performed a traditional Indian dance dressed in blue saris as the Pope arrived in his Popemobile. Taking a flame from a candle held by the Pope, five people lit an oil lamp - a tradition for the beginning of any Indian ceremony.

Delhi Archbishop Alan de Lastic welcomed the pontiff with words drawn from Sanskrit text, "Shanti, shanti, shanti", meaning "peace."

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

During their meeting on Saturday, the prime minister reassured the Pope about the anti-Christian violence.

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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