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November 6, 1999


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The Rediff Interview/ Bishop Piero Marini

'The protests are not the voice of Indian people and the Indian government'

His speech is slurred and barely heard. His hands tremble. While the national anthems of the Vatican State and India were played, Pope John Paul II stood on the podium, leaning heavily on a cane. Then, stooped over, he tried walking carefully and painfully over the more than 200-meter long, red-carpeted path for the ceremonial guard of honour in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan.

But soon the Pope was told by the protocol officer not to take a full round of the red-carpet. He stood and saluted the Indian armed forces. The Pope then came over to whisper warmly to Indian leaders that included President K R Narayanan, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Opposition leader Sonia Gandhi.

The Holy Father's second trip to India could not be more enthusing to the 16-million Catholics and other Christian religious denominations in the country. This most remarkable of all popes in the 20th century has journeyed into India -- into the land of Mahatma Gandhi -- to revitalise the Asian church and lead it into the third millennium.

At the advent of the year 2000, when the papal century reaches its apex with the world's first non-Italian Pontiff since Pope Adrian VI in 1522, the million-km jet-setting John Paul II comes to India at a time when the Church's missionary work in the country is threatened.

No other official trip by the head of a state has raised as much hue and cry as the papal visit. On the one side are many Sangh Parivar organisations like Vishwa Hindu Parishad demanding an apology from the Pope on forced conversions and the Goa Inquisition. The Sankaracharyas also joined the issued creating a heated debate on conversion across the country on the run-up to the papal visit. On the other side are the church leaders who have pledged to carry on with their missionary work in the country's rural and tribal areas.

As the Pope was closeted with President K R Narayanan,'s George Iype caught up with Bishop Piero Marini in Rashtrapati Bhawan for an exclusive interview. Bishop Marini, a close aide of the Pope and the director of Vatican's Office of the Liturgical Celebration talks about the significance of the papal visit and what it means for the Church in India and Asia.

What is the importance of Pope John Paul's second visit to India?

The Holy Father's first visit to India 13 years back was a pastoral trip. The current visit is very significant in that it will shape the Asian church for the third millennium. The Pope will unveil his apostolic exhortation on the results of the Asian Synod. The continent of Asia is special for the Vatican. It is a vast continent that includes the Middle East, the Gulf countries, South Asia, Central Asia, South East Asia, Asian Siberia and Far East. The churches of Asia live and walk together. The papal visit to India, one of the key countries in Asia, will help establish Catholic church authentically as an Asian religion.

What is the message of the Pope to the people of India?

The message that the Pope carries to India is that he loves the people of this country abundantly. The Pope is the world's messenger of peace and harmony, love and friendship. He loves India and the people of India. He is sure that the people of this country also love him.

Do you think the Indian government's reception to the Pope was a very low-key and scaled-down affair? Only a junior minister came to receive him at the airport.

I do not know whether it is a low-key reception or not. We are not overly concerned about that. But I personally feel it has been a very good reception. The Pope is very happy about the rousing welcome he received at the President's House.

Did you notice some of the banners of protests that have come up on the roads against the Pope's visit?

No, sincerely, I have not seen any banners. But I saw the pictures of some protest banners in today's newspapers. I think those who protest against the Pope's visit belong to a miniscule, insignificant minority. The protests are not the voice of Indian people and the Indian government.

Many Hindu groups here accuse that the Catholic church is forcibly converting people, especially tribals and insulting the Hindu deities.

India is a great nation of some one billion people. According to our information, only a handful of organisations and people are protesting against the papal visit. These protests are insignificant as the issues they are raising defy logic. The Pope's position on conversion is like this: "If an Indian wants to change his religion of his own free will, he has a right to do so. If he does not, there is no one who can force him. If a person wants to change his religion, but is being prevented from doing so, it is obviously a violation of human rights."

So you mean to say the anti-Pope protests in India are of no significance and Vatican is not concerned about it.

Vatican is very clear about one thing, that the anti-Christian groups in India do not represent the people of India and therefore it is not significant. India is the greatest democracy in the world. India guarantees religious freedom to all its people. When freedom of religion is assured by the Indian Constitution, everyone has the fundamental right to decide which religion he or she should belong.

Do you think the Pope will talk to Indian leaders and in public about the anti-Christian violence and protests?

I don't know. But perhaps, the Pope should talk about it with the heads of the state governments in India.

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