Preaching religious freedom for all creeds and the right to proselytize them, Pope John Paul II flew here today to pray on a hilltop where, according to tradition, St. Thomas the Apostle was martyred after bringing Christianity to India.
Heading into southern India, the heart of Indian Christianity, on the fifth day of his 10-day tour of the country, John Paul was greeted in this city of cotton mills and film studios on the Bay of Bengal by the largest and most enthusiastic crowds of his visit.
Thousands lined the highway from the airport to Mount St. Thomas. Tens of thousands gathered on the rocky hillside to receive a blessing from the pope and about a half-million people attended an outdoor mass at a beach on the edge of the city.
For the first time during his visit to India, where Christians are a minority of 1.7 percent, John Paul arrived in a city dressed up for the occasion, with the major downtown street bedecked with yellow-and-white Vatican flags and banners of greetings such as one stretching across the road from the airport that read, "The Poor Downtrodden Welcome Pope John Paul II."
The theme of the pope's visit to this capital of Tamil Nadu province was tied to Thomas and his legendary arrival in southern India in 52 A.D. to bring Christianity to South Asia.
In acknowledgment of the tensions between Hindus and Christians, which date from Thomas' time and continue today, the pope reaffirmed the importance of religious tolerance and freedom.
"In the context of religious pluralism, the spirit of tolerance, which has always been part of Indian heritage, is not only desirable but imperative," John Paul said in a meeting with non-Christian religious leaders of Tamil Nadu.
He said there was "a duty incumbent on all citizens, especially on leaders in religious life, to support and guard this precious principle which specifically includes the right to profess, practice and propagate religion."
The issue is a serious one for the Catholic Church in India. It has been attacked by extremist Hindus for seeking to convert their followers to Christianity, despite the fact that after close to 2,000 years of proselytizing, Catholics today account for only 12 million of the nation's 745 million people.
Tonight, the pope flew to the former Portuguese colony of Goa, where the church's first major evangelizing mission to India began in the 16th century with the arrival from Portugal of Franciscans and Jesuits, including St. Francis Xavier.
The pope received a similarly warm reception in Panaji, capital of Goa, where he was greeted by tens of thousands of people along his route into the city.