MUMBAI, India – Christians in India are preparing to celebrate the 1,950th anniversary of the death of St. Thomas the Apostle, who first brought the gospel to the subcontinent.

July 3 is believed to be the date of the martyrdom of St. Thomas, and the date is marked as Indian Christian Day in the country.

“We are happy that the Declaration was done on 3rd July 2021 as Indian Christian Day/Yeshu Bhakti Divas. An annual day of remembrance by the Indian followers of Lord Jesus Christ, to celebrate the person and message of Jesus Christ which was brought to India in 52 AD by one of His twelve disciples, St. Thomas the Apostle is for us to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ,” explained Archbishop Anthony Poola of Hyderabad, who will be created a cardinal by Pope Francis on Aug. 27.

Poola is the first Dalit – the term for members of the former “Untouchables” in the Hindu caste system – to be made a cardinal.

In his message for Indian Christian Day, the cardinal-designate noted that the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote: “Few people realise that Christianity came to India as early as the first century after Christ, long before Europe turned to it, and established a firm hold in South India.”

He said the efforts by India’s early leaders liked to assert that “Christianity came to India before it went to Europe as a tactic to make it a sort of indigenous religion, even if it came from the Middle East.”

“There are people who doubt about the apostolate of St. Thomas in India,” Poola said.

“However, according to the tradition, St. Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ, came to India in 52 A.D., and landed at Kodungallur on the Malabar (presently Kerala) coast. He preached the Gospel to the Brahmin families of Kerala, many of whom received the faith. He established seven churches there: Kodungallur, Kottakkavu, Palayur, Kollam, Kokkamangalam, Niranam and Chayil. It is also a tradition that he frequently visited Malayattoor hills for prayer. Later, he moved on to the east coast of India. He was martyred in 72 A.D. by a fanatic at Little Mount (near Madras) and his body was brought to Mylapore (near Madras) and was buried there. His tomb is venerated until this day,” the cardinal noted.

Poola also said this tradition is confirmed by the testimonies of many of the fathers of the church, adding it was not difficult for the Apostle to come to India, because extensive trade relations existed between Malabar and the Mediterranean countries even before the Christian Era.

“There is nothing to contradict this tradition,” he said.

In fact, the oldest Christian communities in India refer to themselves as “Thomas Christians.”

Organizers have said the day is to help other Indians understand that Christianity has deep roots in the country, and is not just a product of European rule in the region.

Christians just make up 2.3 percent of the Hindu majority nation, and they have suffered increasing discrimination and harassment since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014 under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The party is affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization.

Religious minorities have been suspicious of the BJP’s religious ideology, especially since incidents of harassment against minorities – particularly Christians and Muslims – have increased since the party took power.