Pope condemns Indian bans on religious conversion

Paris, France - Pope Benedict condemned Hindu nationalist attempts to ban religious conversions in India in a speech on Thursday reflecting growing tension among major faiths about the role and nature of missionary work.

In unusually strong language, the Pontiff told New Delhi's new ambassador to the Vatican that efforts in some states to outlaw conversions were unconstitutional and should be rejected.

It was his second declaration this week in defence of religious freedom in countries with non-Christian majorities. On Monday, he urged Muslim countries to give their Christian minorities the same rights as Muslims enjoyed in Western states.

"The disturbing signs of religious intolerance which have troubled some regions of the nation, including the reprehensible attempt to legislate clearly discriminatory restrictions on the fundamental right of religious freedom, must be firmly rejected," Benedict told the new ambassador, Amitava Tripathi.

Anti-conversion laws were "unconstitutional (and) contrary to the highest ideals of India's founding fathers," he said, according to the text of his speech released by the Vatican.

Also this week, representatives of world religions met in Rome to begin working on a "code of conduct" that would affirm conversion as a basic right but curb aggressive proselytising.

The Vatican and the mostly Protestant and Orthodox World Council of Churches launched the initiative after Christian minorities in India complained about aggressive proselytising by newly arrived evangelical groups.

The conversion meeting came two months after Afghanistan threatened to execute a Muslim convert to Christianity, who took refuge in Italy after an outcry from Western countries and the Vatican. Several Muslim states prescribe death for apostates.

Both Christianity and Islam are missionary religions whose scriptures tell believers to spread the faith, a mission that religious minorities usually play down to keep civil peace.

In his statement on Monday, Benedict said Christians in Muslim countries should have the right to speak openly about their religion. Saudi Arabia bars non-Muslims from building churches or making any public expression of their faith.

India's Rajasthan state passed a law last month threatening five years in prison and heavy fines for proselytising, but the governor has not yet signed it. Five other states have already passed such laws to curb missionary activity there.

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) has been advocating conversion bans in recent years as it gained ground in state elections. India's 1.1 billion population is 80 percent Hindu, 14 percent Muslim and 3 percent Christian.

It argues that such bans foster communal harmony, but Muslim and Christian minority groups accuse the party of whipping up Hindu voters' fear to boost its political support.

Several Asian countries have considered banning conversion or found ways to discourage it in recent years. Under pressure from hardline nationalist Buddhist monks, the Sri Lankan cabinet approved such a bill last year but later dropped it.

Indonesia has no such law but a court jailed three Christian women last year for allegedly trying to convert Muslim children. Malaysia refers apostasy cases to Islamic courts, where converts can get up to three years for abandoning Islam.