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Papal Visit to India Stirs Up Christian-Hindu Controversy

By Dexter Filkins

When Pope John Paul II arrives in India Friday for a two-day visit, he will greet a Roman Catholic community under siege for allegedly pushing its religion too hard on the rest on the country.

There may be only 17 million Catholics in India, compared to 850 million Hindus, but leaders of several hard-line Hindu groups are demanding a papal apology for what they describe as a coordinated campaign by foreign missionaries to force thousands of Hindus to convert to Christianity. Several groups are promising to greet the pope with protest marches.

The furor surrounding the pope’s visit hits a sensitive nerve for many Indians, some of whom still associate Christianity -- which came to India at least 1,500 years ago -- with the era of British colonial domination.

The pope’s visit follows a string of assaults on Christians -- both Protestant and Catholic -- throughout the country, including the burning of churches, the raping of nuns and the killing of a Catholic priest.

“The church is trying to subvert our culture,” said R. Sanjay, a senior member of the National Volunteer Association, a Hindu nationalist group known by its Hindi initials, the RSS. “We are fighting against colonial influence. The conflict is still going on. The missionaries are trying to take the people away from their roots.”

The RSS, like the other leading Hindu nationalist groups, has denied playing any role in the attacks on Christians. Indian government leaders have warned the extremist groups to stay peaceful during the pope’s visit, and they have promised extraordinary security for John Paul, who will preside over an outdoor Mass in New Delhi for as many as 70,000 Catholics.

Finessing his visit to India may pose a special challenge for the pope. John Paul has worked harder than any other modern pontiff to promote understanding among different faiths, but officials at the Vatican say privately that the church’s missionary activity sometimes strains his message.

In the days leading up to the pope’s visit, Catholic leaders downplayed the influence of the Hindu nationalist groups. They said they expect that the pope’s visit will enhance religious harmony while reassuring India’s Catholics. But they gave short shrift to the demands for a papal apology.