Government cross with Pope?s call
Right-to-convert sermon to Sangh
Return of light drowned in Diwali darkness
Marriage rush to beat millennium bug
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Nov. 7: 
Pope John Paul II?s statements to the clergy on conversions and his hope of a Catholic Asia in the next millennium have thrown the government into a tizzy even as it continues to express satisfaction over the official part of the papal visit.

Home minister L.K. Advani has sought a detailed report on the Pope?s visit, including full facts on his statements which may have a bearing on the controversy over religious conversions.

The objective in seeking such a report is two-fold. There is apprehension that the Pope?s statements may add to communal tension and contribute to the simmering feelings against conversions.

Intelligence agencies have already reported that papal pronouncements are being described as inflammatory even by those who have no sympathy for groups opposed to the Pope?s visit. The home ministry would like to be prepared for any eventuality in the aftermath of the visit and also caution state governments about the situation.

A typical papal statement cited by one of the agencies expresses the Pontiff?s hope that ?just as the first millennium saw the Cross firmly planted on the soil of Europe and the second on that of America and Africa, so may the third millennium witness a great harvest of faith on this vast and vital (Asian) continent?.

The second objective is political. The feeling is crystallising within the BJP and outfits sympathetic to it that the Pope?s pronouncements on evangelical work and the need to target Asia cannot go unchallenged.

If they are allowed to go unchallenged, the Centre may play into the hands of those who have been campaigning against Christians and unwittingly strengthen their case. Besides, there are the obvious political benefits for the BJP of taking a stand against religious statements of the Pope.

Sources said a decision on how these should be challenged will be taken after analysing the report sought by Advani. It is highly unlikely that the Centre will officially react to the papal statements.

Clear hints were available tonight that the task is more likely to be left to loose cannons within the government of whom there is no shortage. These sources referred to comparisons made between Sonia Gandhi and Monica Lewinsky during the election campaign and to remarks crediting the Congress president with the sole contribution of having produced two children.

An alternative may be to let loose a low-key, but sustained diatribe against the Pope at the behest of pro-BJP organisations which share the hardline views against religious conversions, but have kept away from the anti-Pope campaign so far.

The home ministry is particularly peeved that the papal statements on religious conversions have come a day after it waived a Rs 2.5-crore demand by Delhi Police to the church authorities for arrangements at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium for the holy mass.

Since the mass is not a state function, Delhi Police had told the church authorities that they would have to pay for the extensive security arrangements and deployment of personnel for controlling traffic near the stadium. The ministry feels that restraint by the church would have been the quid pro quo that it expected for such gestures of support.    

New Delhi, Nov. 7 
Capping a gospel of light on Diwali with an unequivocal assertion of freedom of faith, Pope John Paul II declared today that every individual has the right to change his religion.

?No state, no group? should either control religious conviction or ?impede its public profession or practice?, he added. The Pope also expressed the hope that the third Christian millennium would see a ?great harvest of faith? in Asia.

Choosing an inter-religious meet?s platform to send a veiled, but categorical, message to opponents of the church, the Pope said: ?Religious freedom constitutes the very heart of human rights. Its inviolability is such that individuals must be recognised as having the right to even change their religion, if their conscience so demands.?

The Pope did not single out any group, but it was apparent that the assertion was addressed to the Sangh parivar outfits which have raised a storm over conversions.

?No state, no group has the right to control either directly or indirectly a person?s religious convictions... or the respectful appeal of a particular religion to people?s free conscience,? he told a gathering of multi-religious leaders, including the Shankaracharya of Prayag Mutt.

He added that the church wanted to ?enter ever more deeply? into dialogue with other religions of the world.

The offer for dialogue was in tune with the chord he struck earlier during the open-air mass at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.

?I place before them (representatives of other religions) my hope and dream that the next century will be a time of fruitful dialogue,? the Pope said.

The Pope also invoked the memory of Mother Teresa. ?From this land, which preserves the mortal remains of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, I appeal to the whole church never to forget her witness of evangelical love, especially towards the poorest of the poor,? he said. ?She is with the people of India forever?. However, he did not refer to the question of conferring sainthood on her.

Keen to snip the ?foreign? tag attached to the church by opponents, the Pope sought to ?Indianise? the programme. ?Bharat ko ashirvad... Shanti. God bless you all,? the Pontiff told the 60,000-strong congregation, reciprocating the greetings in Hindi ? ?swagatham, swagatham and suswagatham?? from the Archbishop of Delhi, Alan de Lastic.

Matching the call for co-existence, the symbols of Diwali ? complete with diyas and aartis ? were sprinkled throughout the the over three-hour mass, the theme of which was ?live as children of the light?.

?Today, throughout this vast country, many people are celebrating the festival of lights. We rejoice with them, and in this Eucharist here, we too exult in the light and bear witness to the One who is the true light that enlightens every man,? the Pontiff said.

?Light? flashed through his message several times. ?Walk as children of light, for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true,? he said. ?The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,? he added later.

The mass was held in an aura of Hindu symbolism. A multi-deck brass lamp was lit at the outset, while five nuns performed aarti over the Bible. The bishops and priests wore cassocks with logos saying ?Christ the Light?, below which were painted diyas.    

Bhubaneswar, Nov. 7: 
Power crept back to the city in fits and starts on Diwali, but the feeble rays could hardly slice through the wall of darkness built by death and devastation in Orissa.

Stung by criticism of sluggish repair works, the state government managed to restore electricity to some neighbourhoods, but much of Bhubaneswar was in blackout for the tenth day since the cyclone struck.

As a mark of respect to the victims of the cyclone, the government had banned the sale of fireworks.

However, few were in the mood to celebrate the festival of lights. Many grieved for families killed in villages or searched for missing relatives.

Bhubaneswar, born barely 50 years ago, is populated mostly by migrants who have strong attachment to the native villages they left in search of a living.

?Would you call it Deepavali when we see no light?? asked Uma Kar, a housewife in Unit 6. ?We are tired of queuing up for water in the morning and fanning our children at night.?

Even the children were quiet. Stunned by the enormity of destruction all around them, they did not prod their fathers to buy them sparklers or rockets.

With their schools shut for the past 10 days and playgrounds in ruins, they preferred to give Diwali the go-by and called it an early night.

?My children did not ask me once to buy crackers this time,? said Rajesh Agarwal, a businessman. ?They must have realised instinctively that this was no time to celebrate.?

But the government ban has left fireworks sellers, many of them unemployed men, gloomy. ?I bought fireworks worth Rs 7,000 from Calcutta. The entire amount has gone down the drain, not to speak of the little profit I had hoped to make,? said Ranjib Das, a 30-year-old jobless graduate from Utkal University.

With no Kali puja pandal in sight, decorators and shops selling electrical goods also did no business.

?This is the first time in 30 years that I had no work today,? said Dilip Mohapatra, a priest. ?Apart from the loss I suffered, I could not welcome Ma (Kali) to the earth today.?

Revenue minister Jagannath Patnaik had no answer when asked why the government had not been able to fully restore power supply even 10 days after the calamity. A downcast Patnaik left the press briefing to oversee relief work in the state information department.

Diwali brought little cheer to the thousands of affected people in 10 coastal districts, still reeling from the impact of the October 29 cyclone. The official toll today climbed to 1,700.

The government said 300 doctors from different states, including Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and West Bengal, had arrived in Orissa to help fight a possible diarrhoea epidemic.

So far, the government has confirmed 11 deaths due to gastro-enteritis, which has broken out in Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara and Puri. Thousands have been hospitalised.

The army today said relief teams of the three defence services have reached more than 95 per cent of the affected areas. The air force has offered to fly volunteers with kerosene to burn the huge number of carcasses strewn around the coastal belt.    

Hyderabad, Nov. 7: 
Delivering babies in the next millennium is fine, but making is not. Neither is the first step towards conception: marriage. At least not in the first of the coming thousand years.

With superstition saying that marriages in 2000 are inauspicious, couples are hurrying to tie the knot before the dawn of the new century. Astrologers say the ?three zero factor? (the year 2000 has three zeros) bring a triple dose of bad luck. It is believed that marriages in that year will be unhappy, barren and precipitate the deaths of either the bride or the groom.

?The craze to bring forward marriages is not confined to Telugus. Bengalis, Tamils and Punjabis are also rushing to tie the knot before the sun sets on the last year of the current millennium,? said an official of the Andhra Pradesh Astrologers? Samakhya in Secunderabad.

Most of the weddings being brought forward were scheduled between March and June 2000. Twenty-four-year-old Sundeep is getting married on November 29 instead of next year. Two days later, Sundeep is writing his B-Tech second year examination. But his father B. Srinivas Rao, a journalist, insists that the marriage take place on that date.

Padma, a medical student of Osmania University, was to marry on March 14, 2000. Despite her keenness to complete her first semester in December before the wedding, she has to take the vow on December 3. Padma?s parents as well as the parents of her fianc? want it so.

Church and temple managements are so busy that they are scheduling marriages within half an hour of each other. The 18,000-strong Andhra Pradesh Priests? Association has published a series of auspicious dates and a list of places where the ceremony can be held at short notice.

Government officials said the number of visitors to the temple towns of Annavaram, Tirupati, Simhachalam and Vijaywada has swelled by 25 per cent in recent months. Most have a one-point agenda: marriage. Temples, numerologists and astrologers are being flooded with a single question: what is the auspicious ?muhurtam (moment)??

Divajna Sharma, one of Hyderabad?s busy numerologists, said: ?I am writing 25-40 lagna patrikas (times for marriages) everyday.? The state astrologers? federation has offered to set up free assistance centres in Hyderabad, Vijaywada, Tirupati, Kurnool and Vizag to help those who wish to get married before 6.30 pm on December 31.

An Arya Samaj representative said: ?We might conduct mass weddings on the exhibition grounds and in temples.?

The priests are also busy. Mulugu Venkatachari of the Satyanarayan temple in Ashoknagar, who earlier used a rickety moped, has hired a taxi for two months so that he can rush from one spot to another with his four assistants to conduct functions.

The notion that a millennium marriage will bring bad luck spread to district towns after the government cancelled the Sri Rama Navami at Bhadrachalam, saying the year 2000 is not auspicious. Similar cancellations are likely to follow in the temples at Vijaywada, Srisailam, Vizag and Tirupati.

The ?three zero factor?, astrologers say, is inauspicious for not just weddings, but also house-warmings, inaugurations and laying of foundation stones.

Superstition brooks no religious barriers. Sikhs, Muslims and even Christians are in a hurry to get their sons and daughters married before the end of the year.

?Marriages in a year with three noughts (like 2000) are said to bear children who are mentally retarded,? said Maulana Mohammad Shakeel of the Moti mosque.

?The church is not spreading beliefs about how the year 2000 is inauspicious. But we are helping those who have made requests,? said Rector D?Souza of Ramanthpur seminary. The historic Medak church is conducting mass marriages. City churches expect to conduct about 2,000 weddings before the end of the year.    

Maximum: 31.9?C (+2)
Minimum: 22.5?C (+4)
Relative humidity:
Maximum: 93%, Minimum: 48%
Partly cloudy sky. Mainly clear night. Fall in night temperature.
Sunset: 4.52 pm
Sunrise: 5.49 am    

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