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Pope Francis canonizes Indian man who struggled against caste

Tapestries depicting Italian Roman Catholic priest Luigi Maria Palazzolo, French Catholic priest Cesar de Bus, Catholic priest and professor of philosophy Titus Brandsma and Indian layman Devasahayam during a canonization ceremony at St. Peter's Square in the Vatican on May 15. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)
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NEW DELHI — An Indian man who converted to Christianity in the 18th century was declared a saint by Pope Francis at a Vatican City ceremony Sunday, making him the first Indian layman to be canonized.

Devasahayam, born into a Hindu family in the south Indian kingdom of Travancore, was baptized in 1745 and went on to fight caste discrimination and advocate for social equality. India’s caste system divides Hindus into four groups, with Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, at the bottom. India’s constitution abolished untouchability in 1950, but caste-based discrimination persists.

The elevation of Devasahayam is significant for India’s Christians; a majority identify as Catholic and many belong to lower castes.

“The Christian community in India is largely Dalit and Adivasi [Indigenous people]. The political ecology of the Christian church in India weighs heavily in their favor,” said John Dayal, former president of the All India Catholic Union.

Despite that, he said, the number of Dalit and Adivasi priests, nuns and bishops is disproportionately low.

The canonization will bring attention to these communities, Dayal said, arguably making it more significant for Indian Christianity than Mother Teresa’s canonization in 2016.

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The Christian community in India numbers nearly 28 million, less than 3 percent of the population, according to the last census in 2011.

Devasahayam, born Nilakandan, served the king of Travancore as a soldier and later as an official in the treasury, where he met a Catholic military officer from the Dutch East India Company.

The officer shared the story of Job from the Old Testament with Devasahayam, who was struggling at the time with a string of family tragedies, according to an account by Indian priests who attended the canonization ceremony. The story moved Devasahayam to convert to Christianity and take the name Lazarus. The translation of his new name in his mother tongue of Tamil was Devasahayam, or “God has helped.”

According to a profile of the saint published by the Vatican, his conversion to Christianity was seen as “treason” by the king and led to his death in 1752 after years of torture and imprisonment.

But local clergymen at the Diocese of Kottar in Tamil Nadu, the resting place of Devasahayam, believe he was persecuted for his embrace of marginalized groups. “What was not tolerated was that being a high caste man, he had no barriers after he became Christian,” Father Joseph Elphinstone told Vatican News. Devasahayam was said to share meals with people from lower castes, an unthinkable act in 18th-century India.

Six Indian saints have been canonized in the past 15 years, all but one under the papacy of Pope Francis.

Dayal described this as part of an attempt to recognize the growing diversity of the Church and its believers: “In the White world, the Indian Catholic community is slowly consolidating its place of honor,” he said.

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Several states in India have recently passed laws targeting religious conversions, which has sparked violence against minorities, including Christians.

“Saint Devasahayam stood for equality and fought against casteism and communalism,” a former government official told NDTV. “This canonization is a great opportunity for the Church to stand against the prevailing communal poison.”

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