COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Buddhist leaders, offended by Pope John Paul II's criticism of their beliefs, boycotted a meeting with him yesterday, a setback for both papal diplomacy and dialogue between faiths.
The 74-year-old pope had arrived here Friday on the last stage of a grueling, 20,800-mile voyage through Asia and the Pacific, the 63rd of his papacy.
He had been scheduled to meet with Buddhist leaders yesterday, along with six Hindu and six Muslim figures, for an interreligious dialogue before flying back to Rome.
As the meeting began in this humid, ocean-side capital, however, Buddhist leaders simply failed to show up and offered no public explanation for their absence.
Previously, Buddhist leaders had taken exception to remarks in the pope's best-selling book, "Crossing the Threshold of Hope." He referred to "negative" aspects of Buddhism and called its goal of nirvana "a state of perfect indifference to the world."
Papal aides said they could not recall such an open snub by any other religious group since Muslims stayed away from a planned meeting with the pope in Kaduna, Nigeria, in 1982.
In 1987, American Jews threatened to boycott a meeting with the pope in Miami because of his contacts with Kurt Waldheim, then the Austrian president, who had been an officer in the German army in Yugoslavia during World War II. They later withdrew the threat.
Additionally, in 1991, Orthodox Christians failed to attend a meeting of European bishops at the Vatican.
The move by the Buddhists yesterday injected a sour final note into what has otherwise been a triumphal trip during which the pope drew his largest congregation -- estimated by the Vatican at 4 million -- in the Philippines, issued a diplomatic overture to China and was cheered by enthusiastic supporters all along his way.
The boycott yesterday was all the more striking since the pope had singled out Buddhists, who make up some 70 percent of Sri Lanka's 16.8 million population, for expressions of his esteem since he arrived here.
At yesterday's meeting with Hindu and Muslim figures, he again referred particularly to Buddhists when he spoke to them of "my own deep and abiding respect for the spiritual and cultural values of which you are the guardians."
And while calling for a renewed effort to evangelize in Asia, the pope said the Roman Catholic Church "respects the freedom of individuals to seek the truth and to embrace it according to the dictates of conscience, and in this light she firmly rejects proselytism and the use of unethical means to gain conversions."
"Interreligious dialogue is a precious means by which the followers of the various religions discover shared points of contact in the spiritual life while acknowledging the differences between them," he said.
The pope, in impromptu remarks after his formal speech, said that it was necessary for religious leaders "to be together -- not to be together is dangerous."
The Buddhist boycott drew criticism from a government minister, Laksham Jayakody, a Buddhist who is in charge of cultural and religious matters.
"I do not think there is any opposition to the journey of the pope, but they don't want to meet him because of their theological problems," he told reporters. "For me, it is clear that the pope respects Buddhism. And I am frankly unhappy that the Buddhists did not come."
Bishop Joseph Rayappu, a Tamil from the north of the country where a cease-fire is in force after years of insurgency by Tamil separatists, said: "We are unhappy and disappointed, but we understand their position. Buddhism is the majority religion, and they are very sensitive. We accept their decision, and we are not offended."
The Vatican spokesman, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, seeking to play down the boycott, attributed it to political competition between Buddhist radicals and the Socialist government.
"We understand that for reasons that have to do with circumstances in Sri Lanka, the Buddhist leaders decided not to be present," Dr. Navarro-Valls said.
The dispute with the Buddhists is closely interwoven with both the politics of Sri Lanka and with its colonial history, when converts to Christianity were favored by the British rulers over the Buddhist majority, according to scholars of the region.
Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka by an Indian missionary 250 years before the birth of Jesus, while Arab traders introduced Islam from the eighth century onward.
Christianity arrived only with Portuguese colonialists in the 16th century.
According to Vatican figures, Hindus account for 15 percent of Sri Lanka's population, while Muslims and Christians, mostly Catholics, account for just over 7 percent each.
At a Mass attended by tens of thousands of people yesterday, the pope beatified a Goan missionary, Father Joseph Vaz, who voyaged secretly to Sri Lanka in 1687 to revive Catholicism after Dutch settlers declared Calvinism the official religion. After the Mass, the pontiff departed for Rome.