India Celebrates 300 Years Since First Lutheran Missionary Arrival

India will observe the 300th anniversary of the day the first Lutheran missionary arrived on July 9. Lutheran leaders and India officials are paying a week-long tribute to Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg and the long history of Protestant ministry in the predominantly Hindu nation.

"The eyes of 140 member churches in 78 nations, representing 66 million Lutherans, are now upon this city as the whole Lutheran World Federation joins you in thanking God for 300 years of Protestant ministry in India," the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, president of the Lutheran World Federation and presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, told the crowd gathered in Chennai, India for the tribute and celebration. "We will give thanks these days for the great variety of gifts of Ziegenbalg but more for the fruits of those seeds that he planted as they have flourished in a diverse culture and an Indian context."

A 16-member ELCA delegation has joined Lutherans in India at the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute for the tercentenary celebration. An inaugural address was given by Thiru Surjit Singh Barnala, governor of India's Tamil Nadu on July 3 and participants will hear of the contribution of missionaries to civil society in India and on the post-modern challenges to Christian missionary activity.

In 1706, Ziegenbalg arrived in Tranquebar on the southeast coast of India as a 23-year-old Protestant missionary. Although he was met with opposition by Hindus and local Danish authorities, Ziegenbalg pushed on his mission efforts and translated the New Testament into Tamil in 1715. He died in 1719.

The Rev. Chandran Paul Martin, Lutheran World Federation deputy general secretary, commented on the LWF member churches in Asia. "It is responsible for laying the foundation of the creative solutions in freeing the gospel of Christ in very difficult circumstances and pioneering the work for social justice," he said.

According to the U.S. Department of State's most recent International Religious Freedom Report, Christians make up 2.3 percent of the population and Muslims, 13.4 percent. The majority are Hindus. Reports have also indicated that India will be the most populous nation, surpassing China by 2050.

While religious freedom exists in India, Open Doors listed India as the 26th worst persecutor of Christians, up from 34 in 2005.

Nevertheless, Lutheran churches have flourished over the past three centuries even in the context of opposition and a large diversity.

"You have much to teach us about what it means to be Christians in a pluralistic context," Hanson highlighted. "How do we hold in tension respectful dialogue with persons of other faiths, engage in mission that is holistic, and yet continue to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ? We in other parts of the world are looking to you to be our teachers."

The celebration will continue with a convocation on Friday in honor of those who contributed to the cause for which Ziegenbalg arrived in India and culminate on July 9 at the church that Ziegenbalg dedicated in 1718 in Tranquebar (Tarangambadi), India.