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

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

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

"Police blocked more than 80 percent of 1 million people expected in New Delhi by stopping their buses in neighboring states," Ram Raj, a main 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 where government has the right to decide" such a ban "is not tenable constitutionally, morally or ethically."

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

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