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Former Headhunters Greet Pope for Mass on Himalayan Golf Course

February 4, 1986

SHILLONG, India (AP) _ Pope John Paul II paid tribute to the missionaries who brought Christianity to India in a Mass today on a Himalayan golf course attended by about 200,000 people, including former headhunters who had traveled hundreds of miles.

The crowd cheered and waved tiny Vatican flags as John Paul arrived for a Mass on the Golf Links course in the rolling foothills about 330 miles northeast of Calcutta.

It was the most enthusiastic crowd to greet the pontiff since he began his pilgrimage of ″peace and unity″ in India three days ago.

The pope later today celebrated Mass for another 200,000 people at a sprawling public park in central Calcutta. Residents of all faiths jammed both sides of a fashionable shopping boulevard as the Pope arrived for the Mass in his bullet-proof automobile. Others peered out of windows and rooftops.

″A warm welcome to the Pope″ read one multi-language sign, written in Polish, Bengali, English, Hindi, Italian, Urdu, French and Polish, the pontiff’s native language.

At Shillong, as the Pope, surrounded by tribal dancers, stepped onto a raised platform on the 18th tee for his homily, a group of Roman Catholic priests broke ranks and rushed to greet him.

Among the crowd was a group of Konyaka Naga tribespeople in bright tops, sarongs, and carrying long curved sabres. A priest who accompanied them, Father Jesudah Fernando, said they had traveled four days by truck, train and bus to attend the Mass.

The Konyaka Naga tribe gave up headhunting more than two decades ago, and Fernando said the pilgrims from about 200 miles away had converted to Catholicism two years ago.

The issue of converting Indians to Christianity has prompted criticism of and demonstrations against the 65-year-old pontiff by Hindus who dominate this country. Only 3 percent of India’s 750 million people are Christians.

The government slashed airfares and food price so Catholics in Meghlaya state could attend the Mass.

In his homily, John Paul praised the ″countless courageous priests″ and other religious workers who braved ″innumerable difficulties and obstacles of every kind, even to the extent of shedding their blood″ to bring Christianity to this region.

″Today the proclamation (of the Gospel) continues,″ the pope said in English. ″It is being lived out in every corner of this region in harmony with local traditions.″

Foreign missionaries were banned from this area after India’s war with China in 1962 because of allegations they passed sensitive information to the CIA.

India later banned all foreigners, although some foreign journalists were allowed to visit here last year. The area is militarily sensitive because it borders four countries - Bangladesh, China, Burma and Bhutan - and is linked to the rest of India only by a narrow valley corridor.

Although Christians comprise only about tiny fraction of India’s mostly Hindu population, Christians are a majority in surrounding Meghalaya state, which has about 1.5 million people.

Shillong, the state capital, means ″abode of the gods″ in the Khasi language. Before accepting Christianity, the Khasis believed that gods lived in the largest hill of Shillong.

John Paul flew here from Calcutta, where he visited Nobel Prize winner Mother Teresa on Monday and prayed at her Immaculate Heart home for the dying. The Pope returns to Calcutta later today for an afternoon Mass.

During his homily at Shillong, the Pope said missionaries had come to India ″not in order to dominate but to be at the service of every people. The Gospel has come in order to be incarnated in your culture without doing violence to it.″

″In intimate communion with the universal church, let your local churches take to themselves in a wonderful exchange the perennial values contained in the wisdom, the customs and traditions of your peoples so that Christian life will be adapted to the ... character of each culture,″ the pontiff said.

Vatican officials said one of the Pope’s missions during his 10-day, 14- city tour - his longest to a non-Christian nation - is to encourage conservative local clerics to incorporate regional culture into worship to help Christianity shed its image as an alien, colonialist faith.

Militant Hindus sometimes view Christianity as threatening to the cultural and political unity of India.

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