Traveling the paths of a hardy Christianity in India

Jesus' disciple Thomas is thought to have ministered in India's south. Today, 2 percent of Indians – 24 million people – are Christian.

Raymond Cruze is on a pilgrimage, which in India puts him in rather ordinary company. The destination, however, is not the Hindu's sacred Ganges, the Sikh's holy city of Amritsar, or the home of the Buddhist Dalai Lama in Dharmsala.

Mr. Cruze has come to a barren crag at the southern tip of India to stand where Christ Jesus' doubting disciple, Thomas, is believed to have been martyred some 2,000 years ago.

In a land that has given birth to the faiths of Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs and is now the world's third most-populous Muslim nation, Christianity often gets scant attention. But St. Thomas Mount on the outskirts of Chennai (formerly Madras) is a reminder that Christianity may have come here before it came even to Europe.

In all, Christians are India's third-largest religious group behind Hindus and Muslims. Yet at 24 million, they make up only 2.3 percent of the population and have only a fingerhold in most parts of the country.

It is here in India's far south where the country's Christian history runs the deepest – where holy days explode in a riot of color and devotees trace their tradition back to the earliest days after Christ.

"Christianity is deeply ingrained into the people of the south," says Rev. Dominic Emmanuel of the Roman Catholic Church's Delhi Archdiocese.

In most parts of the country, he notes, the Nativity of St. Mary in September is a modest affair, whereas in the south, it is a "huge celebration." On Holy Thursday, southern Christians visit seven different churches, gather together as a family, and eat bitter bread to commemorate Jesus' Passover meal. On Good Friday, the sermons can take hours. "That's not so in the north," says Father Emmanuel.

The distinctions arise from the passage of time. The south has percolated in Christian traditions since the establishment of the faith.

The Acts of Thomas, a third-century gnostic text, suggests that the disciple Thomas took his ministry to India after the ascension.

According to the text, Thomas preached throughout southern India before being martyred for converting the wives and a relative of an Indian ruler, Misdaeus. In Chennai, the cathedral of St. Thomas claims to be the resting place of the apostle.

While the truth of the Acts of Thomas is debated, it is likely that Syrian merchants brought Christianity to the ports of southern India no later than the fourth century. The result has been a familiarity with Christianity here, in contrast to frequent misunderstandings in other parts of India.

"There is a communal divide in certain states," says Cruze, who is returning to his home in the central Indian state of Jharkhand after touring the holy sites of the south. "In the south, [Christianity] is much more accepted than it is in the north."

This has played out in "anticonversion" laws in four northern states. The laws prevent Hindus from converting to Christianity or Islam without the approval of local officials.

In the past, many low-caste Hindus have converted to Christianity; estimates suggest that more than half of Indian Christians are Dalits – the lowest caste of Hindus.

In October, some 500 Dalits participated in a mass conversion to Christianity in the central state of Maharashtra.

Not that all Christian churches are free of caste distinctions. "In some old churches, people on the right are of a certain caste and the people on the left are of a certain caste," says Father Tony D'Souza, a Roman Catholic priest in Bangalore.

In general, though, "poor people find in Christianity a liberating force," says Father Leonard Fernando, a Jesuit priest in Delhi.

Some critics see politics as the primary force behind the anticonversion laws, with conservative parties using the laws energize the Hindu majority. Yet Cruze sees another factor: Christian evangelism.

"When people get [to know] you, then they accept you," he says. "But they always have in the back of their mind that you are always out to convert them."

In a country known for its tolerance of all faiths, Christian missionaries have often rankled. Even Mohandas Gandhi criticized the activities of overzealous missionaries earlier this century.

Yet, in many ways, Christianity here has been shaped by India as much as it has shaped India – particularly in the south.

In typical Indian fashion, many pilgrims shave their heads – an act that has no basis in any Christian ritual. Likewise, Christian marriages in southern India often include the knotting together of the bride's and groom's clothes – a Hindu tradition.

"In the south, many more traditions have developed over the years," says Emmanuel. "The roots [of Christianity] have always been connected to the south.

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