MUMBAI, India – Noting that the Christian community in the state of Kerala is one of the oldest not only in India but anywhere in the world, the president of India said on Tuesday the Church’s heritage and history are a matter of immense pride for the entire country.

President Ram Nath Kovind was speaking at the centenary celebrations of St. Thomas College in Thrissur, the city considered the cultural capital of Kerala.

Located on India’s southwestern Malabar coast, Kerala is the region of India that the apostle St. Thomas is said to have visited on his missionary journeys. The state has the largest Christian population in India, with nearly 20 percent of the people belonging to one of the various Christian denominations: The national average is a little over 2 percent.

St. Thomas College was founded as a school for boys in 1889 and raised to the level of a college in 1919. It is under the jurisdiction of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archdiocese of Thrissur.

In his speech, Kovind said India has a “non-negotiable commitment to its diversity and pluralism.”

“Every resident of Kerala, irrespective of background, is a stakeholder in the sustained success and the march of St. Thomas’s College. Nevertheless, it is important here to appreciate the role of the Church in founding and administering this college, and in taking it to such heights,” the president said.

He said the Christian community has attained “landmarks” in many areas, most especially in education and healthcare.

“To many Indians, the linking of the community with medicine and nursing, and with teaching and education seems natural,” Kovind said.

The president said the warmth felt towards Kerala’s Christians is an international phenomenon.

“In 2017, I had travelled to Ethiopia, as part of my first state visit after becoming President of India. It was very moving to see Ethiopians remember the efforts of Indian teachers who had ventured into the interiors of that country as far back as 50 years ago. They educated generations of Ethiopian children and are still remembered gratefully. Many of those teachers were from Kerala and in fact from this region and community,” he said.

Kovind also took note of the motto of the college, taken from the Gospel of John: Truth will set you free.

“It reminds us that the real value of education lies not in examinations and in degrees – but in how we learn to help fellow human beings and care for those who are less well-off or in need of what we have and can share with them,” the president said.

“I have always believed that the greatest service to God is to help another person, to heal another person and to spread the light of knowledge to another person,” he continued.

“It is this mission that must continue to guide us as we strive to educate and build our society and fashion the Kerala and India of our dreams. Educational institutions like St. Thomas’s College are critical to that journey,” the president said.

Kovind’s visit to the Catholic college comes as the Church is facing increasing pressure in India.

Since 2014, the country has been ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu-nationalist organization.

Christians and other minorities have complained of increased harassment since the BJP has taken over, and recently officials from the party have accused some Church leaders of stirring sectarian division by issuing pastoral letters calling for India to uphold its secular constitution.

Kovind, who once served as national spokesperson of the party, has often praised the Church’s contribution to Indian society since he took on the mostly ceremonial role of president in July 2017.