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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Who mourned the Pope?

Author: Balbir K. Punj
Publication: Asian Age
Date: April 12, 2005

There was something puzzling about the Indian government's decision to declare a three-day state mourning for Pope John Paul II, Karol Jozef Wojtyla. Did it try to appear more Christian than Christians, or more "secular" than the rest? I am all for showing respect to the dead, irrespective of their creed, faith or colour. However, the Indian government's decision raises some interesting questions. Did it declare a state mourning because the Pope was a head of state?

Does the death of a sovereign of an artificial state of less than 1,000 people deserve it? Vatican is a "state" whose head, the Pope, is elected by an electoral college consisting of 117 voting cardinals - all foreigners! Prince Rainier III, the monarch of Monaco, a stamp size principality but substantially bigger than the Vatican and commercially more important, died within a week of the Pope's death. He was Europe's longest ruling monarch, but was there any mourning in India?

And if the gesture was to the head of a billion strong Christian sect, with global presence, then can a "secular state" differentiate between one religion and another? Should it not show similar gestures on the demise of heads of other persuasions in India and abroad? A few years ago, when the paramacharya of Kanchi, in whom many saw a "living God," died, no such gesture was shown. Isn't our "secularism" skewed?

In fact, an embarrassing situation was created when the South Block realised that the Prime Minister of Uzbekistan was due to start his visit to India from April 6, the third day of the mourning. South Block frantically sought a two-day postponement of the visit, but in vain. The Uzbek Prime Minister's diplomatic schedules could hardly be reorganised. This forced New Delhi to reorganise its diplomatic schedule by splitting the mourning into two segments - April 4, 5 and April 8, the actual funeral day - to accommodate Mr Islam Karimov.

How did the rest of the world react to the event? Ireland, a country with 92 per cent Catholic population, did not declare any state mourning and Catholics were not upset over it at all. The same was true for Spain, a deeply believing Catholic country. Leading French left-wingers criticised the government of President Jacques Chirac for lowering flags on public buildings in tribute to the Pope for a day, arguing that it was a breach of the country's secular principles.

Protestant countries like the US, Britain, Sweden, Denmark etc., declared no national mourning. The same was true for countries like Russia, Greece, Ukraine under the Eastern Orthodox Church. Of about 100 Christian countries, just a dozen, all insignificant ones apart from Italy and Canada, declared a mourning. Only Egypt, a predominantly Muslim country with hardly any Catholics amongst its Coptic Christian minority, declared a mourning.

All the same, the Pope had left an indelible mark. History will record him as the first Pope to visit a Jewish synagogue (Great Synagogue of Rome in 1986) and to pray at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem (March 2000). He also became the first Pope to step inside a mosque when he visited the famous Umayyad mosque in Damascus (May 2001). He tendered an apology to the Jews for the Holocaust and to the Muslims for the medieval era crusades.

But alas, he was the same Pope who during his visit to New Delhi between November 5 and 8, 1999, declared that Asia should be evangelised in the third millennium like Europe and the two Americas in the first and second millennium respectively. This certainly was not God's protocol. It was surely an affront to India's pluralistic traditions. The then archbishop of Delhi, Alan de Lastic, dismissed a VHP demand for an apology by the Church for its monstrous Court of Inquisition in Goa in the 15th century under St. Xavier.

The VHP's demand for an apology was not unreasonable. Christianity came to India with Apostle Thomas within decades of the crucifixion and co-existed with other faiths peacefully in the pluralistic Indian ethos. However, this changed with the arrival of Francis Xavier, the first missionary of the new Society of Jesus formed to support the authority of the Pope, in Goa in 1542. In Ambedkar's words (Writings and Speeches Vol. 5), "The inquisitors of Goa discovered that they were heretics and like a wolf in the fold, down came the delegates of the Pope upon the Syrian Churches." Describing the role of Don Alexis de Menezes the Archbishop of Goa, Dr Ambedkar says, "It was his mission less to make new converts than to reduce old ones to subjection; and he flung himself into the work of persecution with an amount of zeal and heroism that must have greatly endeared him to Rome."

One of the highly appealing aspects of Pope John Paul II was his political role. He furtively built up, with Western support, the Solidarity movement in Poland which caused a domino effect in the collapse of the Communist bloc. He established, in 1993, Vatican's diplomatic relations with Israel that were long overdue.

"Although a Pope," says the Newsweek "is by definition the chief teacher, pastor, and administrator of the Roman Catholic Church, John Paul II saw himself primarily as an evangelist. From his first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, he proclaimed to a worldwide audience that 'Christ, Christ is the answer' " (Newsweek April 11-18, 2005 p. 23).

Behind the veneer of his pop-savvy liberalism (the Pope had actually featured in a pop album), who led Vatican into the Internet era, he was essentially a revivalist.

He "was a stern disciplinarian bent on curbing what he saw as a dangerous leftward drift in Catholic theology and practice" (Newsweek). He reversed many of the objectives of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the most ambitious reform programme in the Catholic Church convened by the most significant Pope of the 20th century, John XXIII (1958-1963). John Paul II's immediate predecessor, John Paul I, who died (or was he killed?) within 33 days of being in office, had espoused those reforms.

It remains a mystery how his immediate predecessor Pope John Paul I, a promisingly progressive ecclesiastic, died within 33 days of being in office. He is said to have died due to a cardiac arrest resulting from an overdose of tranquillisers. No autopsy was ever done. It has been long suspected that he had been assassinated for his liberal agenda. David Yallop in his book In God's Name (1984) claimed that the precise circumstances attending the discovery of the body of John Paul I "eloquently demonstrate that the Vatican practised a disinformation campaign." The Vatican told one lie after another: "Lies about little things, lies about big things. All these lies had but one purpose: to disguise the fact that Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I, had been assassinated." Pope Luciani "received the palm of martyrdom because of his convictions."

During Pope John Paul II's tenure, the religo-fascist Mafia, Opus Dei got its grip on the Vatican. Opus Dei, in Spanish meaning "God's Work," is a highly controversial organisation that holds extremely bigoted views and is dedicated to expanding the Catholic grip on international media. Josemaria Escriva de Belaguer ý Albes, the founder of Opus Dei was elevated to sainthood by John Paul II.

John Paul II's views on divorce, artificial birth control, abortion were regressive and out of sync with the AIDS-era. Had a Hindu dharmaguru been professing such views, he would have been dubbed a saffron lunatic. His successor will have to grapple with many issues this Pope was not even ready to discuss. Islamic fundamentalism, emergence of China and India as major players, paedophilia in the Church are a few of these issues.

Balbir K. Punj is a Rajya Sabha MP and convener of the BJP's Think Tank.

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