While Catholics in India eagerly await some formal announcement of the impending papal visit, a senior government official has confirmed to CWN that "the visit is on."
M. P. Singh, protocol director for the Indian foreign ministry, told a CWN reporter, "The visit is taking place toward the end of this year, probably in November."
The government official said, "The official announcement of the visit will be made public only later. But arrangements are being made." He said that official invitations would be issued to Church authorities only once the preparations were complete. But that process is well underway, he added.
Church leaders in India remained reticent about the prospects of a visit from the Pontiff. "So far, there is nothing concrete about it," said Archbishop Alan Basil de Lastic of Delhi, the president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI), when questioned earlier this week. "I am aware of media reports and speculation, but there is nothing more right now."
During the meeting of the Asian Synod in Rome in April and May of last year, India had been mentioned among several possible target sites for a papal visit. (Having called for special synods to bring together the bishops of the several continents, Pope John Paul has made it his practice to make a trip to that continent for the promulgation of his apostolic exhortation-- as, for example, he traveled to Mexico to issue the exhortation that concluded the American Synod.) But to date the Vatican has not announced the site for the Pope's trip to Asia.
"India is very strong on the list," said Archbishop Lastic. "And the Holy Father is very keen to visit India." The Delhi prelate characterized India as the "country with big religions"-- a reference to the country's status as the cradle of major religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.
Archbishop Lastic also recalled that during the meetings of the Asian Synod, the bishops of India-- who composed nearly 30 percent of all the bishops participating in the Synod-- strongly urged the Pope to visit India for the release of the apostolic exhortation.
On Saturday, July 31, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, the new ambassador of the Holy See in India, confirmed that the Holy Father would like to visit India in the near future, but said that no dates had yet been set. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the director of the Vatican press office, has issued a similar hint earlier in July; he told reporters that during his vacation in the Italian Alps, Pope John Paul was thinking about his forthcoming travel plans, mentioning among them the Pontiff's hopes to visit both Iraq and India.
Pope John Paul II expressed his desire to visit India after the Chinese government rejected a Vatican inquiry about a papal visit to Hong Kong. After a negative response from Beijing, the Vatican turned to the government of India-- which evidently welcomed the idea.
An official announcement of the impending papal visit would come from the government, not from the Indian bishops' conference. "The local Church has nothing to do with the announcement of the visit; it is between the government and the Vatican nunciature," said Bishop Oswald Gracias, the secretary general of the CBCI. He told CWN that the Indian bishops "will come into the picture only when the visit is official."
"So far, we have not received any communication to this effect," the Bombay bishop report. "All the same, we would like to be told about it at the earliest. Indian church has a crucial role in working out the details of the visit."
Bishop Gracias said that Pope John Paul's second visit to India is "likely to be a short and symbolic visit," unlike the 10-day pastoral visit in 1986, during which the Holy Father crisscrossed the nation.
While the Indian Church is hopeful that a visit by the Pontiff could help to broaden a dialogue with other religions-- especially Hinduism-- in the wake of the anti-Christian violence last year, the possibility of public protests by Hindu fundamentalist groups has been raised in the media.
"Rediff on the net," India's premier internet daily, has reported that the government's decision to approve the Pontiff's visit is "under fire" from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Council of Hindus. The VHP, the report said, has written to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, saying that "the papal visit should not be permitted without imposing certain conditions on the Pontiff." One of the proposed conditions would reportedly be that "the Pope should give an undertaking to the government that during his visit he will condemn conversion activities of Christian missionaries across the country."
VHP president Vishnu Hari Dalmia told CWN that the internet report was "baseless," denying that any such letter had been sent to the prime minister. "The VHP always welcomes dignitaries to India," he said. "We are not opposed to any person." However, he cautioned that if he did visit India, the Pope "should not encourage conversion or speak in favor of it."
Dalmia then made a stronger statement, arguing that the conversion of Hindus to Christianity "leads to tension." He added: "The unhappy incidents last year were the result of this." The "unhappy incidents" were a series of brutal episodes of anti-Christian violence which made headlines during 1998 and the early weeks of 1999. VHP officials, along with other Hindu militants, have insisted that the violence was sparked by Hindu resentment of the missionary efforts.'
"If the Pope would speak out against encouraging conversion, we are one with everyone else in welcoming him to India," insisted Dalmia. But he concluded on a less friendly note, saying: "If he is going to speak in favor of conversion, we will definitely protest."
For his part, Bishop Gracias said that he felt no apprehensions about the prospects for the papal visit. "The Pope will say what is proper and right," he predicted. "He will not heed what the others say."
In a related story out of New Delhi, CWN reports that a leader of an extremist Hindu group said on Thursday that the Catholic Church's accelerated process for the canonization of Mother Teresa is an attempt to prompt increased Christian evangelization in India.
Giriraj Kishore, of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), said the Vatican's only intention in waiving the customary five-year waiting period was the encourage missionary activity in the nun's adopted country, according to a report by the Press Trust of India. The VHP has led a campaign against Christians and Muslims in the mainly Hindu country, where outbursts of violence have claimed a number of Christian lives in recent years.
The official inquiry into the life of Mother Teresa, who died two years ago at age 87, began last week in Calcutta with the gathering of testimony on her life of heroic virtue.
Congressman Roscoe G. Bartlett, a member of the Armed Services Committee who is supporting the officer, received a letter dated August 3 from General Michael Ryan, Air Force Chief of Staff, indicating the resolution of Lt. Berry's case.
"I fully agree that the United States Air Force must accommodate religious beliefs to the maximum extent possible," wrote Gen. Ryan.
However, regarding Lt. Berry, Gen. Ryan said that "his personal convictions could no longer be accommodated without creating an unacceptable impact on the unit's ability to accomplish the military mission," hence, the young Catholic officer "will soon be scheduled for training to a new career field followed by an assignment to another installation."
William Donohue, President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, stated, "Lt. Berry's attorney, Henry Hamilton, labeled Gen. Ryan's overture 'vapid,' and I would certainly agree with that assessment. The only thing that really matters is whether the politically-driven negative evaluation of Lt. Berry -- which followed two glowing accounts of his performance -- will remain unamended. If it does, it effectively kills Lt. Berry's career."
Lt. Berry's refusal to serve in such close quarters "is completely consistent with the Catholic faith," said Donohue. Noting the Air Force's great strides in tolerance toward many groups, he asked, "but where is the tolerance for him?"
Lt. Berry is not happy with the general's decision, either. "I love my Church, I love being in the military, I love my wife, I love my child," 1st Lt. Ryan Berry told a press conference Wednesday. "I'm not being allowed to combine those loves. I have to sell one of them short."
The Air Force has already decertified Berry from working with nuclear missiles. He is presently working on other tasks at his North Dakota base.
Rep. Bartlett said the Air Force policy of putting men and women together in such proximity could easily lead to sexual misbehavior. "It is silly. This policy is stupid, quite apart from the religious aspects of it," Bartlett said, calling it "a case of worshipping at the altar of political correctness."
Lt. Berry is being supported in his effort to clear his record by Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, John Cardinal O'Connor, Archbishop of New York, and prominent Catholic leaders. ZE99080522
Last year, on the occasion of the country's centennial celebrations, the government supported and financed the construction of a $100,000 belfry for the Balangiga parish, in anticipation of the return of the two bells. The belfry is beautiful but empty. "I went to the United States to see for myself. It pains my heart; the two bells are being displayed as war trophies," Bishop Medroso said.
"These bells are meant to call our people to peace and prayer." We should "pray with one another to reach out in brotherhood," but the bells remain "in a military camp as a memorial ... of the past," the Bishop lamented.
The two bells were taken from the island to F.E. Warren Air Force base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, as a trophy for successfully putting down the Filipino insurrection against Americans in 1901. Historians say the Church bells played an important role in the Filipino struggle against American occupation in 1898. When a 74-man U.S. contingent arrived in the town, several Filipinos were forced to clean the surroundings and the residents saw the Americans mistreat the Filipinos. Discontent mounted; eventually the town's residents revolted against the occupying forces.
On September 28, 1901, the bells peeled, signaling the revolt. The Filipinos made a surprise attack on the American garrison and killed 48 soldiers. In retaliation, the American commander, General Jacob Smith, gave his troops the order to kill "everyone in sight," including men, women and children, 10 years old and older. The "Balangiga massacre" left 50,000 Filipinos dead.
As proof of their success, the American troops carried off the two bells as their trophy.
At present, the bells have special meaning for both sides: the Filipinos who want their return, and the Americans, for whom the bells are a sacred memorial to the troops who lost their life in Samar nearly a century ago.
The bells are U.S. government property; only the American Congress can decide on their future. But U.S. war veterans are protesting against the bells transfer to Balangiga. And U.S. Senator Craig Thomas has exerted pressure on Congress to pass a law prohibiting "the return of Veterans' memorial objects to foreign nations without specific authorization in law."
"These bells are Church bells and religious artifacts of considerable significance in Catholic tradition. They are inappropriate war trophies and ... should be returned to the place where they belong and restored to the purpose for which they were cast and blessed," the Bishop insisted.
Archbishop Oscar Cruz, president of the Philippine Conference of Bishops said that on August 23, the president of the U.S. Bishops' Conference, together with five additional members, will discuss this issue with Filipino Bishops. "The U.S. [Catholic] Conference, as well as a good number of ... legislators, are in support of our claims," the Archbishop said. ZE99080503
"The nuns acted in legitimate self-defense," read a statement from the public prosecutor's office, ending a two-week investigation. Sisters Luz Adelia Barragan and Eva Maria Silva had admitted that on July 21 they took turns firing the pistol into the darkness after hearing an intruder in the convent. One of those shots killed an apparent thief, Severo Mendez.
The nuns began patrolling their convent with the gun last year after a series of robbery attempts. The convent houses valuable religious art, including a 16th century portrait of the Virgin of the Miracles, decorated with a gold crown and scepter.