VATICAN CITY, NOV. 17, 2003 ( John Paul II told a group of Indian bishops that the Church has the duty to foster conversion of hearts to overcome every form of racial, sexual or religious discrimination.

"Indifference and class struggle must be turned into brotherhood and committed service," the Pope said today. "Discrimination based on race, color, creed, sex or ethnic origin must be rejected as totally incompatible with human dignity."

At the same time, the Holy Father firmly condemned the caste system when he met with the bishops of the ecclesiastical provinces of Madras-Mylapore, Madurai and Pondicherry-Cuddalore, at the conclusion of a series of five-yearly visits by the prelates of India.

"It is not enough that the Christian community hold the principle of solidarity as a lofty ideal; rather it must be seen as the norm for human interaction which, in the words of my venerable predecessor Pope Pius XII, has been 'sealed by the sacrifice of redemption offered by Jesus Christ on the altar of the cross to his heavenly Father, on behalf of sinful humanity,'" he said, quoting from the 1939 encyclical "Summi Pontificatus."

"Being successors of Christ's apostles, we have a primary duty to encourage all men and women to develop this solidarity into a spirituality of communion for the good of the Church and humanity," John Paul II explained. "We cannot hope to spread this spirit of unity among our brothers and sisters without genuine solidarity among peoples."

"Like so many places in the world, India is beset by numerous social problems," the Pope observed. "In some ways, these challenges are exacerbated because of the unjust system of caste division which denies the human dignity of entire groups of people."

"Ignorance and prejudice must be replaced by tolerance and understanding," John Paul II said, repeating the words he expressed during a homily in Indira Gandhi Stadium, New Delhi, on Feb. 2, 1986.

"At all times, you must continue to make certain that special attention is given to those belonging to the lowest castes, especially the Dalits," he exhorted the bishops.

"They should never be segregated from other members of society. Any semblance of a caste-based prejudice in relations between Christians is a countersign to authentic human solidarity, a threat to genuine spirituality, and a serious hindrance to the Church's mission of evangelization," the Holy Father said.

"Therefore, customs or traditions that perpetuate or reinforce caste division should be sensitively reformed so that they may become an expression of the solidarity of the whole Christian community," he added. "It is the Church's obligation to work unceasingly to change hearts, helping all people to see every human being as a child of God, a brother or sister of Christ, and therefore a member of our own family."