By Joe Jenkins TENSION was mounting this week as India prepared for the visit of Pope John Paul H amid growing intimidation of Catholics by Hindu extremists.
While the central government has assured Church leaders that it will mount a massive security operation to ensure the Pope enjoys a traditional Indian welcome when he arrives in New Delhi next Friday, Hindu groups who accuse the Church of encouraging forced conversions are set to march on the city and disrupt the four-day visit with noisy demonstrations.
They are also demanding a papal apology for Churchinspired "atrocities" carried out in Goa under Portuguese rule in the 16th century.
The protests during the visit, which ends on November 8, will not be welcomed by the government, which may be forced to clamp down with force.
A poll published on Monday by The Times of India, the English-language broadsheet, showed that twothirds of Indians fear that the protests will tarnish India's reputation abroad. Locals warn that bloody scenes familiar from election campaigns should not be ruled out.
According to Sister Candad, editor of Calcutta's Catholic weekly The Herald, while demonstrations by a fanatical fringe were a certainty, "the nation is really happy that the Pope is coming". She said that while most Indians were looking forward to the visit, activists egged on by extremist elements within the ruling BJP coalition were intent on causing trouble.
Violence against the Church has risen sharply in the last two years. Attacks on clergy have escalated to a recent spate of murders by extremists concerned that low caste Indians are vulnerable to Catholic conversion.
The Archbishop of Delhi, Alan Basil de Lastic, told The Catholic Herald that this campaign was being orchestrated by Hindu political leaders. "They are not tackling the real problems of society," he said, and are instead using a smear campaign to point attention away from problems such as organised crime.
He said the Pope had no reason to apologise for crimes in Goa as they were perpetrated under the civil authority administered by Portugal and not by the Church.
During the visit, His Holiness will visit the Rajghat, where the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, are enshrined. He is due to celebrate Mass in Delhi's cathedral and in the 75,000-capacity Nehru football stadium. He will preside over the official closing of the Synod of Asia, and meet Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the President, Dr K.R. Narayanan. In what might prove to be the most contentious highlight of the visit, the Pope will address representatives of the country's feuding religions.
• Christians throughout Pakistan prayed for tolerance on Sunday after a Muslim extremist was arrested for an arson attack that gutted a Catholic church.
The attack, the latest in a long history of episodes which have included murder. kidnapping and the removal of children from Christian parents and their forcible conversion to Islam, Continued on P2