Pope Francis, the recently installed leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, reportedly has enjoyed warm relations with Jews and Muslims in his native Argentina and seeks to improve ties between the Vatican and members of these monotheistic faiths, on par with the efforts of former Pope John Paul II.
But what about Hindus, whose global numbers almost match that of the world’s Roman Catholics?
The Indian delegation to the papal installation will be led by P. J. Kurien, deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of parliament), as well as various bishops from Kerala (a southern Indian state in which one-fifth of the population is Christian).
However, the Roman Catholic Church and Hindus have long been at odds.
The Hindu-American Foundation, or HAF, welcomed the election of the pope but cautiously called for better relations between the Vatican and non-Christian religions.
“As a pluralistic faith, Hindus respect the papacy for its importance to Catholics and hope that the church now begins a new era of mutually respecting Dharma religions and other pluralist traditions as divinely inspired paths as well,” Pawan Deshpande, a member of the HAF Executive Council, said.
Deshpande also made a reference to the Declaration of Nostra Aetate ("In Our Age"), a document that formed part of the revolutionary Second Vatican Council from the 1960s, which sought to reach out to non-Christian faiths.
The Declaration stated, in part, that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is holy and true in these religions. She [the Church] regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings, which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.”
Deshpande hopes that Francis would seek to strengthen the sentiments behind the Declaration.
HAF lamented the reign of Francis’ immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, as “one of lost opportunities,” citing some inflammatory remarks he made about other faiths.
In 1997, HAF noted, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict denigrated Hinduism as a religion of "false hope" that guaranteed salvation based on a "morally cruel" concept of reincarnation resembling a "continuous circle of hell."
Benedict also described the ancient Indian practice of yoga as a “cult of the body."
“Under Pope Benedict’s watch, the church did not [encourage] interfaith relations and pluralism with our community,” Deshpande stated. “We sincerely hope that the Pope Francis ... will take significant, meaningful and lasting measures to create a more harmonious world.”
Padma Kuppa, another HAF Executive Council member, called for an end to the aggressive, predatory and exploitative proselytization of Hindus by Catholics and other Christian missionary organizations in India and elsewhere.
“As Hindus, it’s difficult to have meaningful interfaith dialogue when the church is openly advocating for the demise of our faith,” she said. “The appointment of Pope Francis offers a great opportunity for the church to build meaningful and substantive relations with a billion Hindus globally, repudiate its history of predatory proselytization and foster a new relationship based on mutual respect, tolerance and pluralism.”
But Benedict’s record with Hinduism is not entirely negative -- indeed, in early 2011, during Good Friday meditations and prayers at the Roman Colosseum, the pope included a verse from the Upanishads, an ancient Hindu scripture -- an act applauded by Hindus across the world. Benedict also included verses from the poetry of India’s Rabindranath Tagore and made references to Mahatma Gandhi in his public prayer services.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the faith divide, in recent years, Hindu extremists in India have moved against what they view as the attempted mass conversion of Indian Hindus by Christian churches and missionaries.
In late 2008, riots against Christians erupted in the eastern state of Orissa, a region where the church has converted thousands of "untouchables," as well as local tribal people to Christianity. Hundreds of people died in the disturbances.
Periodic outbreaks of violence against Christians are reported across India.
Last summer, according to the World Watch Monitor, Hindu “nationalist extremists” attacked Christians attending teacher training in Dharwad district, Karnataka, in southern India.
Some Hindus believe that the conversions to Christianity are frequently done by force.
“They want to convert people to Christianity and convert the country into a Christian land," Swami Laxmananand Saraswati, head of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), a Hindu nationalist group, told Indian reporters in 2008. "We are opposed to that, and that is the source of all disputes and fights."
(Ironically, Saraswati was later murdered by Maoist insurgents, although some locals blamed Christian activists.)