NEW DELHI, India -- Summoning all his moral authority, Pope John Paul II tried yesterday to persuade leaders of other religions here that interfaith understanding should lead them to recognize the Roman Catholic Church's right to evangelize.
"Religious freedom constitutes the very heart of human rights," the pope, on a three-day visit to India, said at a gathering that included Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and representatives of several other faiths. "Its inviolability is such that individuals must be recognized as having the right even to change their religion, if their conscience so demands."
But that is an argument that many religious leaders in India accept only with difficulty. Christian conversions are at the heart of a political and religious dispute that has made the pope's visit a tense one. Christian proselytizing is a source of uneasiness between the pope and some of his more moderate and like-minded religious peers.
"Conversions are a fundamental right," Samdhong Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk who is the speaker of the Tibetan Parliament in exile, said after leaving the podium he shared with the pope. "But what we fear is that between indoctrination and anybody's inner-consciousness to choose his religion -- there is a clean line.
"Any kind of action to encourage, or to persuade or to motivate in favor of any particular religion, that is a form of conversion that we as Buddhists cannot recommend," the monk said.
All the religious leaders who met with the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in a lecture room in the Palace of Science here praised the pope's efforts to promote mutual respect and joint responsibility for addressing social ills. Shri Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, a New Delhi rabbi, draped a Jewish prayer shawl around the pope.
To fervent applause, Shankaracharya Madhavananda Saraswati, a moderate Hindu leader who has criticized fundamentalist protests over the visit, clasped the pope's hand and held it high in the air. Afterward, however, the Hindu leader expressed private misgivings about Christian evangelization.
He said later that Hindus could not really ever be diverted from their original faith: "Religion comes from the heart. Something may change outwardly, but what is inside remains with the human being forever. That does not change."
The pope, 79, who came to India to close a synod of Asian bishops, has declared the evangelization of Asia, where Catholics remain a tiny minority, to be one of the church's top priorities for the next millennium.
In India, however, Hindu fundamentalists accuse Christian missionaries, who are most active in poor rural and tribal areas, of preying on the most susceptible -- buying their souls with education, medical aid and economic assistance.
Anti-Christian attacks by Hindu fundamentalists, often encouraged by political extremists, have escalated over two years, with more than 150 recorded incidents of church lootings, beatings, rapes and killings.
Yesterday, the pope presided over a colorful sitar Mass for 40,000 worshipers in Nehru Stadium. The Mass coincided with the most important Hindu celebration of the year, Diwali, the festival of light, which was noisily celebrated all over New Delhi with fireworks. At the Mass, under a huge abstract poster of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, women in brown and gold saris danced before the altar while a choir of sitar-players performed Indian-style hymns.