JALANDHAR, India — Franciscan Father Mani Alakkot has a firsthand understanding of the need for the Church in India to promote dialogue with other religions.

Two years ago, the Franciscan priest was entrusted with the dangerous duty of protecting an orphan boy, Vijay, who was the eyewitness to the cold-blooded murder of Father George Kuzhikkandathil.

Speaking at the March 1-8 meeting of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, held in Jalandhar on the theme of “Church in Dialogue,” Father Alakkot said, “Only through dialogue can we convince others what Christianity and missionary work aim at.”

Added the priest, “Hindu militant groups misunderstand the mission work.”

Father Kuzhikkandathil was brutally murdered by Hindu militants in June 2000 at Madhura, the ancient city where Hindus believe the god Krishna was incarnated. Father Kuzhikkandathil was the principal of the Franciscan school there and was killed on its premises.

The assailants locked Vijay in a room before taking Father Kuzhikkandathil out and beating him to death. The boy was threatened with death as well if he reported the incident to police.

Hindu militant groups were unhappy because the missionaries started schools and hospitals around Madhura. The groups alleged that Christians are trying to convert Hindus.

Church leaders believe that the best way to counter such hostility is through meetings with leading Hindu militant organizations, such as Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (called RSS).

“The Church has taken the right stand regarding the dialogue with Hindu militant groups like RSS,” said Archbishop Cyril Mar Baselios of Thiruvanathapuram, the president of the bishops’ conference. Archbishop Mar Baselios was instrumental in starting the dialogue with Hindu militant groups.

Madan Vaidya, an RSS spokesman, welcomed the idea of dialogue. Vaidya said that the first meeting between RSS and Christian leaders, held last August at the bishops’ conference offices in New Delhi, was “a new experiment that helped us to know each other.”

Added Vaidya, “Such dialogue will continue.”

The Jalandhar conference was attended by 150 bishops, 24 archbishops and two cardinals, including Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, the prefect of the Congregation of Evangelization of Peoples. “Christianity in India seeks to adopt to different cultures in which it finds itself and work in harmony with other religions,” Cardinal Sepe told the gathering.

Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Sikh leaders also spoke at the conference, and the bishops went on a pilgrimage to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest place of Sikhs. Jalandhar is located in the Punjab, the homeland of the Sikh religion.

A March 6 interreligious meeting was presided over by Giani Joginder Singh Vedanti, the Jetedar or chief priest of the Sri Akal Takht, the Sikh religion's highest body. Vedanti expressed “full confidence” that “the interreligious meeting will be a rewarding enterprise.”

Professer Sandog Ripoche, a senior advisor to the Dalai Lama, offered similar sentiments. A dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity will “enrich both the religions,” Ripoche said.

A Muslim representative said that Islamic leaders intend to follow the Catholic bishops’ lead and start their own dialogue with other religions. Maulana Akthar Husain of Anjuman Minhaj-E-Resul, a conglomeration of Muslim organizations, said the dialogue will begin “soon.”

On March 3, the bishops visited Wagah, located on the border between India and Pakistan, to pray for peace. The two countries have been close to war in recent weeks over Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim Indian state that has been the site of terrorist violence. India charges that the violence has been supported by the Pakistani government.

The bishops also condemned the Hindu-Muslim communal violence that claimed more than 600 lives in the northwestern state of Gujarat in late February and early March. The violence was triggered by the plan of Hindu militants to build a temple in the city of Ayodhya on a site where a mosque was destroyed 10 years ago, in an incident that sparked communal riots across India.

Said Archbishop Mar Baselios, “We are saddened with the news of the burning of so many innocent people.”

Bindu Milton writes from New Delhi.