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Indian tribal-turned-priest among contenders to lead Holy See
17 Apr, 2005 00:00:00
Indian tribal leader-turned-priest Telesphore Placidus Toppo, one of the contenders to be the first Asian to lead the Holy See, is known for his commitment to social causes but also for his conservative views on homosexuality and birth control.
Indian tribal leader-turned-priest Telesphore Placidus Toppo, one of the contenders to be the first Asian to lead the Holy See, is known for his commitment to social causes but also for his conservative views on homosexuality and birth control.
Toppo told domestic news agency Press Trust of India that his first participation in a conclave will be a "challenge".

"I am new and do not exactly know what I am expected to do. I suppose I will have to learn once I am there," he said.

Among the causes 65-year-old Toppo, Archbishop of Ranchi, has espoused in India's lawless states of Jharkhand and Bihar are de-addiction, vocational training, the education of rag pickers and the rehabilitation of lepers -- for which he has earned a domestic humanitarian award.

A member of Jharkhand's Oraon tribe, Toppo is a strong supporter of the late Pope John Paul II's emphasis on the right to life, particularly in the developing world, and his views on missionary work, homosexuality, birth control and abortion.

The conservative doctrine alienated many Catholics disappointed at the pope's refusal to give ground on the issues of contraception and the use of condoms in the face of an AIDS epidemic. With 5.1 million sufferers, India has the second largest number of people in the world infected with HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS.

Multi-linguist Toppo, who studied theology at the Pontifical Urbaniana College in Rome, was host to Pope John Paul II's visit to Jhakhand state capital Ranchi in 1986 and was part of the Indian entourage that was in Rome during Mother Teresa's beatification in October 2003.

But in India he caught the headlines after right-wing Hindu groups accused him of encouraging the conversion of villagers to Catholicism. The groups also attacked the late pope during his second visit to India in 1999 for promoting conversions in the majority Hindu nation.

The right-wingers say Toppo's rise to prominence is evidence the Church's main objective in Jharkhand is to convert tribals and that its social work and services are only steps toward that goal.

Toppo has denied their charges and has dismissed their calls for an anti-conversion law in India. "If people accept a religion according to their own conscience, how can it be justified as wrong?" he asked at a meeting in March of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) that he heads.

He denied Christian missionaries are involved in converting people.

"We are social workers. We run educational institutions where non-Christians are also studying," said Toppo, who was named cardinal by the late pope on October 21, 2003.

The CBCI in a statement has come out strongly against forced conversions.

"We don't believe in forced conversions. It is against our theology," it said in a January statement. "In fact if it is proved that if any conversion is a forced one, we don't register that baptism. Even if somebody most willingly joins the Church, we don't admit him immediately, but only through a gruelling process."

Only about two percent of India one-billion-plus population is Christian, but that still adds up to some 24 million.

The issue of conversions in multi-cultural India, which boasts one of the world's largest Muslim populations and is the birthplace of Buddhism, has sparked violence, including the murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines in 1999 in the southeastern state of Orissa.

In a bid, perhaps, to deflect some of the criticism, Toppo spent much time among survivors of the tsunamis that lashed India's shores on December 26 and presided over a multi-faith meeting in badly-battered Tamil Nadu state which included Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

At the meeting, he encouraged communal solidarity.

"We might have secondary differences but we are substantially one family," he said. - AFP

Conservative Indian cardinal in race for papacy
By Elizabeth Roche
   NEW DELHI, April 17 (AFP) - India's Cardinal Ivan Dias, known to toe the line of the late Pope John Paul II on homosexuality, birth control and the role of missionaries, is among the top contenders in the race to be the next pope.

Ordained a priest on December 8, 1958, in the western Indian city of Bombay, Dias is said to wield considerable influence in the Vatican, so much so, according to some reports, that some liberal priests fear him.

Shortly after his ordination, he was selected to go to the Ecclesiastical Academy of Rome for studies and was a Vatican diplomat for more than 30 years in various parts of the world before returning to Bombay, the city where he was born, in 1997 as archbishop.

Named Cardinal by John Paul II in February 2001, Dias has some factors going for him to land the job of leading the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, observers say.

Reports say he is a multi-linguist -- fluent in as many as 16 languages, mostly European but including Korean.

Like John Paul II, he is orthodox, mirroring many views held by the late pope.

He is said to frown on priests with leftist tendencies and has a reputation for being a tough taskmaster who feels that priests owe their duty first and last to the Church.

John Dayal, secretary of the All-India Christian Council, describes Dias as "pro-life" and believes his brand of conservatism is good for the Church.

"Dias is a great admirer of Pope John Paul II and is seen as a conservative to the laity, which is very good for the Church," he said.

In a November 2003 Vatican address, Dias referred to homosexuality as a disease of the soul, and said he prayed for such people to be "cured of their unnatural tendencies."

Another admirer of Dias, Dolphy D'Souza, described him as "pastorally quite focused" and keen for an increased involvement of ordinary Catholics in Church functions.

On the negative side, Dias has been variously described by commentators as a "follower and not a leader," "cagey" and "a closed book" compared to the late pope.

The Asian Age newspaper said Dias's tenure as archbishop of Bombay saw an exodus of Catholics to other Christian demoninations.

The paper said he is close to the conservative and financially powerful Opus Dei within the Roman Catholic Church, a movement admired by some and feared by others.

Prior to his elevation to cardinal, Dias, at 68 relatively young by Vatican standards, was given several key assignments by the Holy See.

He was was posted as secretary of nunciatures in Europe, Africa and Asia for eight years from 1965 to 1973.

Dias was also posted as member of the secretariat of the Vatican State for nine years between 1973 and 1982, during which countries under his charge included Pope John Paul's native Poland, the former Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and many African nations.

"Cardinal Dias is in a very traditional sense a diplomat of the Vatican," Dayal said.

After becoming a cardinal, Dias was appointed member of a council looking into the organisational and economic problems of the Holy See in 2001.

During the beatification of late Nobel laureate Mother Teresa at the Vatican in October 2003, it was Dias who read the homily at the ceremony.

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