A 25-year Indian-American college professor of Hindu persuasion has been chosen to present a symbol of his faith to Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday in Washington, DC during the latter's first ever Papal visit to the United States that began on Tuesday.
In a rare honour Dr Ravi Gupta, assistant professor of Religion at Center College in Kentucky, has been selected as one of the five young people representing different religions to meet with the Pope and to hand him a present symbolising Hinduism.
Gupta will give the Pope an incense burner in the shape of the sacred Hindu symbol, Om.
"Actually, I was quite surprised when I got the phone call from the office of the US Conference of the Catholic Bishops in DC sometime ago," Gupta told rediff.com.
By his own admission the invitation might have been the result of his being chosen as the Hindu representative after he made a strong impression on Catholics who attended the 10th Annual Vaishnava-Christian Dialogue in Washington DC, in 2007.
At that time he gave a Hindu perspective on the problem of suffering.
Although Gupta, who will serve as a assistant professor of Hinduism at the College of William and Mary this fall, is the only Hindu representative to be part of the small delegation of religious representatives allowed to meet with the Pope and to give him a present, there are at least two other Hindus, among 200 people from other religious faiths, including Uma Mysorkar of Flushing Hindu Temple and Anuttoma Dasa of ISKCON who will meet with the Pope.
Both Gupta and other religious leaders, including Mysorkar, will meet with the visiting dignitary at the John Paul II Cultural Center in DC during an interfaith gathering.
The Pope, who will come down to New York on Thursday, among others to address the United Nations, is expected to face protests outside the world body where a little known group called the Forum for the Protection of Religious Pluralism has planned to organise a peaceful march.
The protesters originally planned to march from the UN building to the Gandhi statue in Union Square Park in order 'to raise public awareness' of religions that have been 'victimised 'by aggressive proselytisation campaigns, including in India, but the plan has been shelved.
It was not immediately clear from the postings on the Web site as to who are behind the protests.
In the 'about us' section on its Web site, it said it is sponsored by 'World Congress of Ethnic Religions' and supported by Union of Slavic Communities of the Native Slavic Faith' and several other organisations.
"We did not ultimately get the permission for the march," someone from the organisation who identified herself as Valerie Tarico, told rediff.com on Tuesday night in response to a phone call.
Incidentally, two weeks ago when this correspondent called the same number and the same person for details about the protests coinciding with the Papal visit, there was a recorded voice mail that complimented the caller for reaching 'Modi for Gujarat' referring to re-election campaign of the chief minister of the western Indian state ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party. And then the voice mail got disconnected.
The contact number for the group where Tarico could be reached, 847-462-4692, was the same as was mentioned for 'Support Gujarat Organization' the Web site that launched an online epistolary campaign last year, urging non-resident Indians in the United States and elsewhere to persuade their folks back home to vote for the re-election of Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
FPRP said it plans to submit a petition signed by members of all religious groups to the UN secretary general calling for more active role by the UN in protecting all the world religions and cultures.
But Gupta, who said he is grateful for the opportunity to meet with the Pope, hopes that his meeting will go beyond a formality, and will lead to a deeper exchange between Catholics and Hindus.
"I'd like to encourage him to open up a full dialogue with Hinduism and bring Hindus to the table," Gupta said.
"That is especially important considering India's growing presence in the world. Interfaith dialogue is more needed today than perhaps ever before," Gupta added.
'The fact that an up-and-coming scholar was chosen as the face of our faith, instead of a political or cultural figurehead, seems to indicate a more thoughtful approach to Catholic-Hindu relations," said Vineet Chander, Hindu chaplain at Rutgers University and spokesperson for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
"I think it is an optimistic sign of things to come," Chander added.