Pope leads tributes to the late Archbishop de Lastic of Delhi
By Luke Coppen
POPE JOHN Paul II has appealed to India to promote religious tolerance following the tragic death of the leader of the nation's Catholics last week. The Pope made the appeal after a meeting with the Indian prime minister at the Vatican on Monday, six days after Archbishop Alan de Lastic of New Delhi died in a car accident in Poland. He urged Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajapayee to pay tribute to the late archbishop by safeguarding the rights of Christians and persuading extremist Hindus to stop their campaign of violence. An estimated 200 attacks on Christians, their churches and property have occurred since Vajpayee's party came to power in 1998. A Vatican statement said that the Pope "underlined once again the importance of religious liberty and of calling people back to the tradition of religious tolerance in India". The Pope and the prime minister's meeting cameas Indian Catholics were in mourning for Archbishop de Lastic, who died on June 20 on a journey to Warsaw from the shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Czestochowa. Archbishop de Lastic died after the car he was riding in collided with a motorcycle. The motorcyclist, who was apparently under the influence of alcohol, was killed on impact. The driver of the car, a Polish priest, was said to have found the archbishop dead in his seat "with blood in his mouth". Announcing the death of the leader of the 16 million Indian Catholics, Fr Donald de Souza, deputy general secretary of the Indian bish ops' conference. said: "We have lost an extraordinary and charismatic leader, who gave leadership not only to the Catholic community in India but to all the Christians in the country." As chairman of the ecumenical United Christian Forum for Human Rights, Archbishop'de Lastic constantly condemned publicly the anti-Christian violence in India of the last few years. His recent pilgrimage to Rome, which included a pilgrimage to Poland. began on June 12, only hours after he called on the Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to discuss the unabated violence against Christians. Christians in India fear that the archbishop's death may trigger an increase in attacks on the Christian minority. Archbishop Cyril Malancharuvil of Trivandrum, who succeeds the late archbishop as president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, said the "Church in India has lost a powerful spokesman". His death "happened at a crucial time when his leadership and presence was essential for the church," he added. Bishop Gregory Karotemprel of Rajkot in the western Indian BJP-ruled state of Gujarat, where attacks on Christians began two years ago, said the timing of the archbishop's death "could not be worse than this". Bishop Godfrey de Rozario of Baroda said the archbishop's death was a tremendous setback to Christians because he was a champion of peace and a bold spokesman for the Christian community. Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati, who described the late archbishop as a strong championof religious freedom and civil rights for Christians, said the Lord "called him away when the struggle is still on". "Ile had emerged as a courageous spokesperson for the entire Christian community in these troubled times for Christians in India," the archbishop said. Gasper D'Souza and Ronald Colaco, lay leaders in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, said the Indian church had been made "vulnerable by the irreparable loss" of Archbishop de Lastic who "in the last two years, exposed the government's virtual endorsement of attacks on Christians". Archbishop de Lastic was born in Burma on September 24, 1929. He fled to India in 1942 to escape the Japanese invasion. He was ordained in 1958 and began his pastoral work in Calcutta, where he worked closely with Mother Teresa and was consecrated auxiliary bishop there in 1979. Four years later he was translated to Lucknow, before becoming Archbishop of Delhi in November 1990. Archbishop de Lastic's funeral took place on Tuesday at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Delhi, where the Archbishop presided over Mass for nine years. A Memorial Mass took place simultaneously in Warsaw.