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World Hindu Council Opens in New Delhi - 2003-02-22

Thousands of Hindu nationalists have gathered in the Indian capital to put pressure on the government to allow them to build a temple at a disputed holy site.

The World Hindu Council has vowed to launch nationwide rallies starting Thursday to gather support for its campaign to construct a temple at the tiny North Indian town of Ayodhya. Hindu hard-liners want to build the temple on a parcel of land there next to the 16th century Babri Masjid Mosque that was destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992.

The demolition sparked one of India's most contentious religious disputes. More than 2,000 people died in subsequent riots.

Several groups insist they will build a temple at the site, which they say is the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama.

Last March, the Supreme Court upheld a 1994 ruling banning any religious activity around the disputed site, after the World Hindu Council threatened to begin constructing a temple next to the mosque on land acquired by the government.

The president of the World Hindu Council, Ashok Shingal, called on Hindus at the New Delhi meeting to be prepared for "sacrifices" and "harsh measures" in the struggle to build the temple.

The Hindu nationalists are demanding the government hand over the land around the ruins of the mosque to begin construction of the temple.

The government has asked the Supreme Court to lift the ban on religious ceremonies on the land. The court will hear the plea on March 6.

Several Hindu groups, including the World Hindu Council, are affiliates of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the ruling coalition.

Earlier this week, Mr. Vajpayee said he favors building a temple at Ayodhya, and expressed confidence that historical evidence will prove that a temple had existed there before the mosque was built. But he said the government would abide by the verdict of the court.

A decade ago, the BJP gained wide popularity by actively supporting the cause of building a temple at Ayodhya.