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TRIVANDRUM, India (Reuters) - Thousands of Christians were flocking to a small town in southern India on Saturday to celebrate the planned canonization of a Roman Catholic nun, against a backdrop of the worst anti-Christian riots in decades.
Sister Alphonsa will become India's first woman saint when she is canonized by Pope Benedict at a special ceremony at the Vatican on Sunday.
"It is a very important event and a big recognition for a woman born in a simple, ordinary Indian family," said Archbishop Raphael Cheenath in eastern Orissa state, where recent attacks on Christians have killed about 35 people.
"At this time of suffering, it will help us and inspire us."
Tens of thousands of people were thronging a church in the town of Bharananganam in Sister Alphonsa's native Kerala state ahead of the occasion.
Special masses are being held in all Catholic churches in the state, where Saint Thomas, one of the 12 apostles, is believed to have arrived in 52 AD, bringing Christianity to India.
Bells will ring and firecrackers will burst across Kerala when the Pope declares Sister Alphonsa a saint at 1.30 p.m. (0800 GMT), said Father Dominic Vechoor, chancellor of Palai diocese, where she was a nun from 1927 till her death in 1946.
The canonization ceremony will be telecast live from the Vatican, where a large number of church and state officials and pilgrims from India are expected to be present.
About 100,000 people are expected on Sunday when mass will begin at the crack of dawn, said Lukos Joseph, trustee of the Alphonsa Church in Bharananganam, where roads have been smoothed and the church and convent sport a fresh coat of paint.
Christians make up 2.3 percent of India's billion-plus population, with Roman Catholics accounting for 70 percent of the minority that is largely concentrated in the country's south and northeast.
Alphonsa will be India's second saint after Gonsalo Garcia, of Portuguese parentage, who was canonized in 1862. Albanian-born Mother Teresa, who served the poor and destitute in Kolkata, was beatified in 2003, a first step to canonization.
Alphonsa Muttathupadathu was born in Kudamaloor, a village near Kottayam, and lost her mother at a young age. She was brought up by a maternal aunt, a strict, religious woman, according to a local resident who knew the family.
A beautiful girl, Alphonsa received several marriage proposals early on, but was determined to enter the convent and stepped on burning chaff to disfigure herself and deter suitors.
Her aunt then agreed to send her to the convent, a common practice among Catholic families in the state to raise their social standing in the community and also escape the large dowries that are demanded for women at the time of marriage.
Sickly even as a child, Alphonsa suffered from various illnesses till she died at the age of 36.
Her tomb, close to the Franciscan Clarist convent where she lived, gradually became a pilgrimage site and she was credited with several miracles, particularly curing illness and disease.
She was beatified in 1986 during the former Pope's visit to India, a secular country which has seen increased intolerance in the past two decades with a revival of Hindu nationalism.
"It's a matter of immense pride for us since one of our believers is being bestowed with the sainthood," said Vechoor.
"It will strengthen the church in the country."
Reporting by C.J. Kuncheria and D. Jose in TRIVANDRUM; Writing by Rina Chandran; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani