Nov. 5--(RNS) The Catholic Bishops Conference of India has issued astatement supporting the "fundamental right" of thousands of members ofHinduism's lowest caste to convert to Buddhism.

"The Constitution of India guarantees its citizens the right toassemble, live in freedom and profess and propagate their faith," saidthe letter made public by the Rev. Dominic Emmanuel, the bishops'spokesman. "We support this fundamental right of the Dalits to choosethe religion of their choice, guaranteed by the constitution of thecountry."

The letter was issued shortly before an event Sunday (Nov. 4), whensome 20,000 Dalits, also known as "untouchables," publicly converted toBuddhism during a ceremony in New Delhi. Event organizers had expected acrowd of 1 million, but the day before police had raised concerns aboutthe possibility of religious violence, and requested a more subduedceremony or a site change.

"Police blocked more than 80 percent of 1 million people expected inNew Delhi by stopping their buses in neighboring states," Ram Raj, amain organizer of the public ceremony, told the Associated Press.

The bishops conference rejected "any call to ban such rallies,"insisting that "unless it is a question of law and order wheregovernment has the right to decide" such a ban "is not tenableconstitutionally, morally or ethically."

The event had been banned by police in India, according to the Timesof India. "While (the conference) is at no stage involved in this event of thereported rally of the Dalits to embrace Buddhism, we fully support theirconstitutional right to gather and their fundamental right to choose thereligion of their conviction," said the group's secretary general,Archbishop Oswald Gracias.