Pope launches a crusade in Asia

POPE JOHN PAUL, ignoring Hindu appeals to halt the Roman Catholic Church's drive for converts in Asia, told the leaders of other religions yesterday that converting to another religion had to be recognised as a right.

The Pope, in India to launch a millennial blueprint for the church in Asia, stressed greater dialogue between the world's faiths to promote peace. But he returned to the central theme of his visit: that evangelisation had to be a priority in Asia at the start of the third Christian millennium.

"No state, no group has the right to control either directly or indirectly a person's religious convictions," he told religious leaders, including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jainists, Zoroastrians, Jews and Bahais. "Religious freedom constitutes the very heart of human rights. Its inviolability is such that individuals must be recognised as having the right even to change their religion if their conscience so demands."

The 79-year-old Pontiff was speaking as millions of Hindus celebrated Diwali, the festival of lights. The festival is the high point in their religious calendar, marking the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil.

The Hindu holy man Shankaracharya Madhavanananda Saraswati, wearing saffron clothes, held up the Pope's hand as the two men met and a rabbi draped the Pope's shoulders in a prayer shawl. "Do accept the openness of our religion and our love," the Shankaracharya said in his speech. "We also desire your co-operation in making our holy culture a culture of the world."

But Hindu activists have strongly opposed the Pope's visit to Delhi, accusing missionaries of coercing poorer Indians into converting to Catholicism. They demanded that the Pope order a moratorium on conversions, a call that has gone unheeded.

The Pontiff travelled to India to conclude an Asian synod of bishops begun in Rome last year and to present a document called Ecclesia in Asia (The Church in Asia), which calls for the spreading of the Gospel in the continent which has the fewest Catholics.

t The death toll in the cyclone that ravaged eastern India last month has climbed above 3,400, with the majority of victims in the Jagatsinghpur district, rescue workers said yesterday.

Meanwhile, diarrhoea is plaguing thousands of people who drank tainted water. The Orissa state government said there were as yet no epidemics of water-borne diseases, such as gastroenteritis and cholera, but more doctors had been flown into the worst-hit areas.

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