New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - A militant Hindu organization here has attacked Pope John Paul II for comments its members say confirm suspicions that Christians are engaged in an orchestrated attempt to convert Hindus.
The leader of the world's Catholics called on Indian bishops to "courageously" continue to spread the gospel despite "unjust" conversion laws passed by some Indian state governments.
"This is not an easy task, especially in areas where people experience animosity, discrimination and even violence because of their religious convictions or tribal affiliation," he was quoted as telling a delegation of bishops at the Vatican.
"These difficulties are exacerbated by the increased activity of a few Hindu fundamentalist groups that are creating suspicion of the church and other religions," the pontiff said.
"Unfortunately, in some regions, the state authorities have yielded to the pressures of these extremists and have passed unjust conversion laws, prohibiting free exercise of the natural right to religious freedom or withdrawing state support for those in the scheduled castes who have chosen Christianity."
The "scheduled castes" reference relates to Hinduism's strict social hierarchical system, which places at the very bottom of the ladder the so-called "untouchables" or "dalits."
One of the reasons some Hindus give for their decision to convert to Christianity or Islam is to escape from the caste system and enjoy a sense of social equality.
The pope's statement has caused an uproar in the National Volunteer Corps (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS), a radical Hindu group claiming more than four million members.
"The utterances of the pope are tantamount to a direct challenge to India and its pluralist tradition," said RSS spokesman Ram Madhav.
He said the pope's words confirmed Indians' worst fears that there was a sinister design behind Christian conversion activities and that they were not merely sporadic.
The RSS accuses Christian missionaries in India of bribing poor Hindus to convert by offering them food, education or other incentives.
Five state governments have passed legislation declaring "forced" conversions illegal.
The latest of these laws, in Gujarat state, makes it a crime to convert anyone through "force, fraud and allurement."
A Christian organization is challenging the law in court in the state, where Christians are also concerned about recent house-to-house questioning by police of priests, nuns and other Christians.
Similar laws now exist in Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Arunachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu states.
Madhav said laws of this type were needed in other states, too.
"The activities of missionaries for converting people to their faith are leading to tensions and posing a serious threat to peace and harmony," he said.
The RSS is affiliated with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The BJP's national secretary, L. Ganesan, also condemned the pope's statement, saying it amounted to "interference in the internal affairs of India" and proved there was a need for anti-conversion laws in all states.
Catholic Archbishop of Calcutta Lucas Sirkar said in a published interview that fundamentalist Hindu groups "hinder our mission to spread the Good News."
The gospel of Jesus Christ was "for all Indians," he said.
Sirkar said the fear that Indians were being enticed to convert was unreasonable.
"The conscience of every individual must be free," he said.
Christians make up just 2.5 percent of India's more than one billion, mostly Hindu, population.
Christians say attacks against them and their institutions have increased since the BJP took power in March 1998.
In recent years, about 200 attacks on Christians and their institutions have been reported. Most were blamed on the RSS and other similar groups.
Fourteen men are in the closing stages of a trial for the murders of an Australian missionary and his two young sons who were burnt to death by a mob in Orissa state in 1999 as they slept in their car.
Graham Staines' widow, Gladys, stayed on in India - where she works with leprosy patients - after the attack that killed her husband and sons.
Early this year, 67-year-old American missionary Joseph Cooper was attacked by about 10 suspected Hindu militants, sustaining a deep wound in the palm of one hand. He was then ordered to leave the country.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has been urging the State Department to add India and several other countries to its list of "countries of particular concern" because of violations of religious freedom.
The commission, an independent expert body that gives recommendations to the U.S. government, said the authorities failed to hold people accountable for abuses of religious freedom, involving Hindus, Muslims and Christians.
However, when the State Department issued its current list of "countries of particular concern" in early March, India was again left off.
The countries on the list are Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Sudan.
See Earlier Stories:
Indian Christians Alarmed by Passage of Religious Conversion Law (Mar. 26, 2003)
'Illegal Preaching': US Missionary Faces Deportation of Jail After Attack (Jan. 22, 2003)
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