National Catholic Register


‘Conversion’ Issue in India Not Settled by Pope’s Visit

BY Jim Cosgrove

November 21-27, 1999 Issue | Posted 11/21/99 at 1:00 PM


NEW DELHI—A call by Pope John Paul II — made during his three-day visit to New Delhi — for the evangelization of Asia has provoked mixed reactions in India, assuring that recent controversies about the mission of Christianity in predominantly non-Christian India are far from settled.

Rajender Chadha, spokesman for a section of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a prominent Hindu nationalist group, has accused the Pope of abusing “the hospitality that India has extended to him,” and of planning to convert India to Christianity.

Of the Pope's call for religous freedom, Chadha complained, “He should not have said it.”

At the same time, Asian Church leaders have played down the Pope's calls for evangelization in Asia.

“The peoples of Asia need Jesus Christ and his Gospel. Asia is thirsting for the living water that Jesus alone can give,” the Pope declared in a Vatican document released during a ceremony in New Delhi Nov. 6.

The document — Ecclesia in Asia (The Church in Asia) — is the fruit of the Synod for Asia held at the Vatican in April and May last year. The Pope has made it a custom to visit the regions covered by special synods to release the apostolic exhortations that summarize and conclude their work.

“You, the bishops, are being asked to make ever greater efforts to spread the Gospel of salvation throughout the length and breadth of the human geography of Asia,” the Pope told almost 100 bishops — 60 of them from outside India.

During the ceremony, Pope John Paul also made a fervent plea for religious freedom. “If this most basic of rights is denied, then the whole edifice of human dignity and freedom is shaken,” he said, pointing out that “in parts of Asia explicit proclamation is forbidden and religious freedom is denied or systematically restricted.”

The issues of evangelization and religious freedom are particularly sensitive in India which in recent months has seen a number of attacks against Christians, who Hindu nationalists claim are engaging in forced conversions and offering material inducements for people to convert to Christianity.

Several bishops who attended the ceremonies in New Delhi said they were “stunned” by local media coverage of the visit such as one headline in Asian Age that proclaimed, “Pope: Convert Asia.”

Insisting that the Pope was not calling for the “stepping up” of conversions, Archbishop de Lastic defended the use of “evangelization.”

“We will carry on proclaiming the word of Christ and it is for others to accept. There is no question of using force or allurements,” he said.

Archbishop de Lastic also criticized the calls by Hindu nationalists for a ban on conversions. Such a demand was a “perversion, as it denies the fundamental freedom of individuals to choose one's religion according to his conscience,” he said.

According to Bishop Anthony Lobo of Islamabad, secretary general of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, evangelization “means preaching the good news. It does not mean conversion or proselytization only.”

K. Rajaratnam, a prominent Lutheran and president of the National Council of Churches in India, which groups 29 Protestant and Orthodox churches, said, “It is very good that the Pope has made the Christian position very clear regarding the Gospel we are committed to preach around the world.”

He said that he was happy that the Pope had clearly highlighted the need for the Church “to commit [itself] to the poor” and had raised “social concerns” that were common to Christians as well as others.

Coverage of the visit in the western press has stressed the difficulty and complexity of the Church's mission in Asia.

“The expected protests by Hindu extremists failed to materialize in India, and their call for a freeze on Christian conversions generally fell on deaf ears,” said John Thavis of Catholic News Service. “More than anti-Church demonstrations, popular indifference seemed to mute the Pope's call for evangelization.”

La Repubblica, a leading newspaper in Rome, said “… for the first time in 20 years, [the Pope] has arrived in a country which marginalizes him. Television coverage lasts only a few seconds, and there are angry articles in the press. The government has welcomed him strictly according to protocol, and nothing more.”

La Stampa in Turin, commenting on the Nov. 7 papal Mass in New Delhi, said: “Participation by Catholics was not strong (40,000 people), because of the Hindu festival Diwali, and also because of the stringent security and a climate of tension fed by Hindu extremists.” (From combined wire services)