Devasahayam, an 18th century Indian, was given the title of saint by the Vatican

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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 ceremony in Vatican City on Sunday, honoring him as the first Indian common man.

Deva Sahayam, born into a Hindu family in the southern Indian state of Travancore, was baptized in 1745 and fought against racism and advocated social equality. The caste system of India divided the Hindus into four groups, of which the Dalits, formerly known as the Untouchables, were below them. The Constitution of India abolished untouchability in 1950, but caste-based discrimination persisted.

The height of Devsahim is significant for Christians in India – mostly identified as Catholics and many belong to the lower castes.

“The Christian community in India is predominantly Dalit and indigenous [Indigenous people]. The political ecology of the Christian church in India weighs heavily on them, “said John Dayal, former president of the All India Catholic Union.

Nevertheless, he said, the number of Dalit and tribal priests, nuns and bishops is relatively low.

Canonization will draw attention to these communities, Dayal said, making it more significant for Indian Christianity in 2016 than the chastity of Mother Teresa.

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According to the last census of 2011, there are about 28 million Christians in India, less than 3% of the population.

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

The officer shared the story of the work of the Old Testament with Devsahayam, who at the time was battling a series of family tragedies, according to a description of Indian priests who were present at the canonization ceremony. The story prompted Devsahayam to convert to Christianity and take the name Lazarus. The translation of his new name in his mother tongue Tamil was Devasahayam, or “God helped.”

According to a profile of the saint published by the Vatican, his conversion to Christianity was viewed by the king as “sedition” and he died in 1752 after years of torture and imprisonment.

But local pastors at the Kotta diocese in Tamil Nadu, where Devsahim rests, believe he was persecuted for embracing a marginalized group. Father Joseph Elphinstone told the Vatican News that “what was not tolerated was that a man of high caste, after becoming a Christian, had no barriers.” Devashayam was told to share food with the lower castes, an unimaginable feat in 18th century India.

Six Indian saints have been honored in the last 15 years, all but one under Pope Francis.

Dayal described it as part of an effort 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.

Christian enclaves in India fear violence due to pressure on Hindus to convert.

Several Indian states have recently passed laws targeting proselytizing, which has led to violence against minorities, including Christians.

A former government official told NDTV, “Sant Dev Sahayam stood for equality and fought against racism and communalism.” “This canonization is a great opportunity for the church to stand up against the existing communal poison.”

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