Pope John Paul II ended his 11-day tour on a note of controversy Saturday when Buddhist leaders boycotted a meeting with him to protest his views of their religion.
Six Hindu and six Muslim representatives greeted the pope, but none of the invited Buddhist prelates showed up for the meeting with the leader of the world's 950 million Catholics.The pope has been critical of the Buddhist doctrine of salvation, cautioning that the objective of Buddhist meditation is to reach "indifference" to the world, not to draw nearer to God.
He gave no answer to Buddhist monks who had demanded an apology but went out of his way to sound a conciliatory note at the meeting. Departing from his prepared text, he added: "It is important that we are together. Not being together is dangerous."
It was not the first time that representatives of other religions have distanced themselves from the pope. Muslim leaders stayed away during his visit to Nigeria in 1982. Jewish leaders had threatened to boycott a papal meeting in Miami in 1987 after the pope met with then-Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, who was accused of complicity in Nazi war crimes, but most showed up after talks with the Vatican.
The pope also told the Muslim and Hindu leaders that the Roman Catholic Church "firmly rejects proselytism and the use of unethical means to gain conversions," in an apparent response to criticism from Buddhists of the church's conduct in Sri Lanka.
The pope's tour - with earlier stops in the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Australia - was designed to strengthen the church in heavily populated Asia.
The pope returned to Rome late Saturday. Italy's leaders, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and Premier Lamberto Dini, greeted him at the airport before he traveled on to the Vatican.