Amid Violent Threats, Pope Brings Peace

NEW DELHI, India—As the growing Christian community in India was assessing the Nov. 6-8 visit of Pope John Paul II to their country, the Pope was on his way to Georgia for his next state visit.

He flew Nov. 8 from New Delhi to the former Soviet nation. His Georgia trip will be the second time since the 11th-century split between Eastern and Western churches that a pope has visited a country with an Orthodox majority. The first was his historic visit to Romania in May.

At press time, the Holy Father was scheduled to meet Georgian President Eduard Chevernadze, Mikhail Gorbachev's former minister of foreign affairs, at the airport upon his arrival.

On his four-day visit to India, Pope John Paul II called for a new, energetic program of evangelization. But, in light of recent unrest there, he also told the continent's non-Christians that they have nothing to fear from the Catholic Church.

Asians are thirsting for the Gospel, and the start of the next millennium should bring “a great harvest of faith on this vast and vital continent,” the Pope proclaimed during a Mass in New Delhi on Nov. 7.

Religious conversion was the focus of much opposition to the Pope in the country before the visit. During his stay, he strongly defended the Church's right to evangelize in Asia and the right of individuals to “change their religion,” saying this should not threaten harmony between Christian minorities and other faiths.

“Let no one fear the Church!” he exclaimed. “Her one ambition is to continue Christ's mission of service and love, so that the light of Christ may shine more brightly, and the life that he gives may be more accessible to those who hear his call.”

The Pope presented to Asian bishops a 141-page apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in Asia (The Church in Asia), which outlined the direction and methods of the new evangelization program on the continent. It was the final chapter of the synod of Asian bishops, held at the Vatican in 1998.

The document said the church must proclaim Christ as the “only savior” and invite non-Christians to find ultimate answers in the Gospel. In Asia, home to two-thirds of humanity, this fundamental missionary activity is a “solemn duty” of all Christians, it said.

The document said the best way to spread the faith in Asia was to live it, especially through a deep practice of prayer, through personal contact and by reaching out to the millions of suffering people on the continent. It praised Asia's many Christian martyrs and denounced religious persecution in places like China.

India gave the Pope a polite but subdued welcome. Despite fears of Hindu extremist violence, demonstrations against the papal visit were not small.

In an interview with the Register, one Hindu leader said that the Pope had a peaceful visit because the Hindu fundamentalist movement is mainly political and running out of steam.

Swami Agnivesh, 59, has won international acclaim from anti-slavery organizations for having won freedom for more than 50,000 bonded laborers and 5,000 children in servitude. He spoke to the Register on the eve of the Pope's arrival in New Delhi on Nov. 5 amid anti-Christian protests by Hindu fundamentalists on the occasion of the visit.

Register: Leaders of Hindu groups like Vishwa Hindu Parishad [VHP — World Council of Hindus] have expressed concern that the Pope's visit will lead to conversions. Do you agree?

Swami Agnivesh: Not at all. As a Hindu, I feel no reason why we should be concerned about the visit of the Pope. Nobody in the wildest imagination would think that the Pope will go around and declare, “Whole of India, I convert to you to Christianity.” There is nothing to panic or to be scared about the papal visit.

On the contrary, this is a great occasion for all of us to show our true Hindu spirit of tolerance and welcome the most famous religious leader in the world to our country.

VHP leaders have declared that they “welcome” the Pope while demanding a declaration from him that “Christ is not the only way of salvation.” Is there any substance in this demand?

This is an irrational demand. Every religion has its tenets. The Pope, as the head of the Catholic Church, speaks out the faith of his church. No sensible person would expect the Pope to denounce Catholic beliefs and speak to please the audiences wherever he goes. The Pope has the freedom to uphold his faith.

Secondly, such a demand by the self-appointed guardians of Hinduism has no basis or authority. The Vedantic dictum is “Ekam sat, vipra bahuti vadanti” [“the truth is one, the wise see it differently”]. The hard core of Hinduism is that God is almighty creator, full of compassion. There is divinity in each one of us. And to approach God, one may choose a path of his own.

That means, according to Hinduism, each religion perceives God in it own way. You cannot force another to disown his faith or belief because you do not like it.

VHP and others have demanded an apology from the Pope for past misdeeds under Portuguese rule.

We are now on the threshold of a new millennium. It is time for us to get out of the ghettoes and our narrow mind-sets. We have lived and killed each other, destroyed the human family, and have fought even wars in the name of our gods.

This is a new opportunity for all religions to look forward to the future instead of digging up the past. Demands for apology would only reopen the healed wounds and create bad blood. We need to work for greater understanding and harmony.

How do you explain the anti-Christian violence in majority Hindu India?

The spurt in anti-Christian violence in the last one and half years has political reason to it. Ever since Sonia Gandhi [of Italian Catholic origin, who married Rajiv Gandhi in 1968 under Hindu rites] came up in the political scene, Christians are being singled out by these [Hindu fundamentalist] groups. For them, Sonia [Gandhi] is strong rival to the political aspirations of BJP [the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party].

They are trying their best to embarrass her, given her Italian and Catholic background. During the [September] election campaign, their slogan was “Choose between Ram Raj and Rome Raj” [kingdom of Hindu-god Ram or kingdom of Rome].

This has been their game and it has not subsided even after the elections and getting to power [with BJP now heading the federal coalition government]. That is the reason for the protests before the papal visit.

Fortunately, those in power [in the BJP] have tried to distance themselves from these fanatic groups. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and many of his colleagues share this view. With no BJP approval for their anti-Christian campaign for the papal visit, the protests have petered out.

In fact, the hate campaign against Christians has boomeranged. …

The reason for this is that the mainstream Hindu society does not like anything that is intolerant or violent. A true Hindu will never hate another.

Hinduism is a very liberal, tolerant and all-embracing faith. There is no space for fundamentalism in it. The way the shouting brigade of the so-called champions of Hindu society has created bad blood against the visit of the Pope is completely unbecoming of the Hindu.

Christians have been accused of converting people by “force, fraud and inducement.” How serious is this allegation?

The mainstream Christianity in India has taken every opportunity time and again to denounce these type of conversions. Maybe fringe groups with vested interests could be guilty of it. But, these allegations are based on exceptions.

Do you oppose conversion?

No. According to our scriptures, each individual has the right to choose the path of his liking. So, how could a Hindu oppose conversion if he chooses a new one of his will?

All the same, I am concerned about the “soul saving” industry doling out money for conversions. But it is at the fringe level; every religion has such fringe groups. [They] feed and thrive on each other.

We are fortunate that such groups all over the world remain at the fringe level. It is now time for religious leaders to isolate such groups which breed hatred and mistrust against other faiths.

True religion only unites. It never divides people.

Anto Akkara writes from New Delhi, India.