Why two Christian factions in Kerala, similar in almost every way, are parting ways in fury
In 2017, the Supreme Court of India in a judgement, ruled that only those compliant to the 1934 constitution of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church had a legal standing. This in effect made illegal all the clergy belonging to the Jacobite faction. They stood to lose control over 1064 churches to their rivals – the Orthodox faction.
The Supreme Court’s orders are now being executed after considerable delay caused by a government dragging its feet. Churches in control of the Jacobites are now being taken over one by one.
The Lede goes to the ground to understand how the stakeholders see things unfurling.
“We were forcefully dragged out of the church by the police yesterday,” says Father Sleeba Kattumangattu.
“Bishops, priests and even women & children were assaulted. While the church has been taken over, 80% of the parish goers here are now left to stay mute spectators as they take control,” he rued.
The St Thomas Jacobite Syrian Cathedral in Mulanthuruthy is known as the Marthoman Jacobite Syrian Cathedral Church. The church had, until 17 August 2020, been shared between the two factions and had forcefully been taken over by the administration using police force. Fr Sleeba, belonging to the Jacobite faction, was still in shock recounting the horrors of the take-over.
“They just want the property,” shouted Skariah KT a parishioner, standing on the street facing the church which, a day before, was filled with police. As he stood in front of the police barricades, up ahead, in the still fully barricaded church, policemen looked relaxed.
“We cannot allow anyone entry to the church,” a Sub-Inspector had said politely. “Sorry but we have been told so. Do take photos from outside,” he said. He had been summoned on special duty from nearby Oonnukal and stood guard outside by his jeep. Inside the church compound, on plastic chairs, policemen relaxed, most staring into their phones.
But on the streets, anger and grief was still pouring out. Nobody was spared - politicians, judiciary, the police - all were being condemned.
“What the court has done is not justice,” accused a shopkeeper.
“All parties have betrayed us. We will support no political parties now on,” added another.
“In the middle of this pandemic, they brought in 2000 policemen. How do you justify that?” asked one.
“There are more than 2400 Jacobite families here and less than 400 Orthodox families,” said Skariah KT. “On what basis is court giving away our church to the Orthodox?” Skariah asked repeatedly, holding out a complaint he had handwritten, listing out points that he felt the courts and the governments had overlooked, to be submitted to the panchayat president.
“This is our church. The church has been here since 1100 AD and it is with our ancestors’ contributions that it has become what it is. The government school you see here, the land, the building all of it was given away to the government by us. How can they be so cruel to us now?” he asked.
“When the cases started in the 1970s, there were only 12 Orthodox families here. How can anyone justify giving it all to them? We are being left with nothing,” he said. “Our loyalties will always lie with the Patriarkis Bava,” he shouted, visibly perturbed, before heading off to the Panchayat president on his scooter. Showing reverence to the Patriarch of Antioch, referred to as the Patriarkis Bava, was being seen as an act of defiance to the court ruling itself.
“This is only about power and property,” says Mary Johnny who runs a shop in front of the Mulanthuruthy church. “Let them take everything. We will not submit to them still,” she says. And this defiance is commonly shared by many in Mulanthuruthy who are worked up about the loss of their ancestral churches en masse.
“In Poothrika they have taken over the church where there is only one Orthodox family in the entire parish,” says Mary. “To one family!” she repeats. Poothrika is where her family hails from and for her the loss is doubly exasperating, she says, as she has lost both her as well as her husband’s churches within a span of one day.
“It is our memories, our ancestors’ memories that they are usurping. This won’t end well,” she swears. “They will die terrible deaths,” shouts a visitor to her shop as curses give vent to the agony felt by those on the ground.
“We want to have nothing with them anymore,” says Mary when asked if relations would get back to normal between the believers of the two factions. “Personal relations have been destroyed. We have relatives from their side also. But how can we continue to talk to those who did this to us?” she asks. “Now on, nobody is going to allow marriages with them. This has hurt us. How can we be cordial with people who laughed as we were being dragged out of our own church?” she asks.
It was not always like this.
The Jacobites and Orthodox factions of the Syrian Orthodox Church once shared cordial relationships and seamlessly took kinship from either side and have a shared history.
The Jacobites and their rivals, the Orthodox Syrian Christians once together constituted the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, part of the many churches born out of the erstwhile Saint Thomas Christian communities in Kerala.
“The Malankara Church had been under the Patriarch of Antioch,” says Fr Sleeba Kattumangattu.
“Just like the Catholic church the world over functions under the Pope to this day, the Patriarch of Antioch overlooked the affairs of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church” he says speaking to The Lede in Mulanthuruthy. He is Cor-Episcopal, belonging to the Jacobite faction and accepts the authority of the Patriarch of the Church of the Antioch as final.
Antioch, whose ruins lie near the current city of Antakya, Turkey, was founded near the end of the fourth century BC by Seleucus I Nicator, one of Alexander the Great's generals.
The Church of the Antioch, was one of the five ancient patriarchates, headed by patriarchs as the highest-ranking bishops in the Christian Church prior to the Great Schism, when the Christian community worldwide split into two traditions. The other four ancient patriarchates were the patriarchates of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Jerusalem.
“A group of priests in Kottayam claiming that they are not under the Patriarch of Antioch and that the Malankara Orthodox Church in India is independent of the Patriarch, to be controlled exclusively by the Catholicos in Kottayam led us to this conflict,” says Fr Sleeba.
After the Great Schism on July 16, 1054 divided the Christian church into two branches: the Western Roman Catholic Church based in Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Church, the church of Antioch sided with the Orthodox traditions in what was then a protest against growing influence of the Roman patriarch, the Pope.
With the spread of Islam, the four other Patriarchates diminished in influence, leaving the Roman Catholic Church with predominant Christian following worldwide and making the Pope a global figure while the other patriarchs continue to exist in relative oblivion.
“Till 1912 the Patriarch of Antioch had paramount powers over the Malankara church in India,” says Fr Elias Cherukattu belonging to the Orthodox faction, who is the present Assistant Vicar of St Mary's Syrian Orthodox Cathedral, Piravom, now under Orthodox control.
In 1912, the Malankara Church witnessed a partial split with people backing the Patriarch of Antioch (Jacobite Syrians) and those who opposed his authority (Orthodox faction) going their separate ways. The two factions continued to remain under the umbrella of Malankara church.
“The then Patriarch had founded the Malankara Catholicos after which the powers of the Patriarch reached a vanishing point,” says Fr Elias. This was not accepted by one faction - Jacobites. The Supreme Court of India has but accepted this interpretation that the powers of the Patriarch of Antioch had indeed reached a vanishing point as far as the Malankara Church was concerned.
“In the 1930s, conflict arose as to who should have control over vattipanam,” says Jose Paruthuvayal, Vicar of Kothamangalam Cheriya Palli belonging to the Jacobite Faction, stressing that the conflict was over money and not faith. Vattipanam was the interest collected from the money that the church loaned and concerned other incomes it drew too. Churches, holding wealth systematically accumulated by contributions from the parishioners over the centuries, were rich and propertied.”
“A few bishops stayed away from the Malankara Association meeting, citing differences, before the 1934 constitution was to be adopted,” says Fr Elias of the Orthodox faction. The Malankara Association, the super body composed of elected laity and clergy from individual parishes constituted the supreme decision-making body.
“It is the supporters of those who stayed away who have eventually come to be the Jacobite faction of today,” says Fr Elias.
In contrast, in the Jacobite version, it was those who broke away in defiance of the Patriarch of the church of Antioch that became the Orthodox faction. Revisionism is the norm in the retelling of factional history by either side. And interpretations differ on either side.
“Between the confusion then prevailing within the Malankara Orthodox church, the Patriarch of Antioch appointed new bishops from amongst those who stayed away,” accuses Fr Elias. In the Jacobite version, these were regular appointments under the Church of Antioch.
“This created a parallel authority,” says Fr Elias. “They developed the churches that they had control and support in and most of them were in present day Ernakulam, Angamaly and a few areas in Kottayam itself. That is also where today takeovers are pending. In most areas in south Kerala - Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Thiruvananthapuram, the Orthodox faction retained control,” he says.
Presently, the Orthodox and Jacobite factions of the erstwhile united Malankara Church numbers around five lakh people each (2011). This accounts for one-sixth of Kerala’s Christian population of 61 lakh (2011).
The most numerous Syro-Malabar Catholics, numbering about 23.46 lakh as of 2011, had adopted Catholicism during the first split in the original Mar-Thoma Christian community of Kerala in the 1660s. The split was over liturgy, traditions and rites. But in the case of Jacobites and Orthodox factions, there are no such differences.
“It is a contradiction that believers who have no other differences between them other than a tussle for power and control have come to this head,” admits Fr Jose Paruthuvayal, Vicar of Kothamangalam Cheriya Palli belonging to the Jacobite faction.
“The earlier splits, centuries back were followed by a give and take of church buildings too. The Kothamangalam Valiya Palli, which is now 1500 years old had then been with the Catholics. We exchanged it for the Angamali church. That was how the Malankara Syrian Orthodox church came to own the church here,” he says pointing to the old church which still stands atop the hill.
"Similarly, the Edapally Church was given to the Catholics in exchange of Kuruvilangadu Church." The Edapally church, now a pilgrimage centre of the Syro-Malabar Catholics has grown in size and money ever since.
“The difference is, at that time, issues eventually came to be settled democratically. That has been the tradition of Saint Thomas Christians,” says Fr Jose. “The traditions of the Coonan Cross is what brought us this far to begin with.”
Under the stone cross in front of the Kothamangalam Cheriya Palli, the metal plate etched in Malayalam reads, “Randam Koonan Kurishu Sathyaprathijna” - the Second Coonan Cross Oath.
The Coonan Cross Oath known in Malayalam as the Koonan Kurishu Sathyam, was a protest wherein on 03 January 1653, in Mattanchery, a public pledge was made by members of the Saint Thomas Christian community (Syrian Malabar Nasranis) that they would not submit to the Jesuits and Latin Catholic Portuguese Padroado dominance in ecclesiastical and secular life.
The native Christians had at the time been in communion with the Church of the East (East Syriac Rite liturgy) of Persia.
The Portuguese, who arrived in Kerala in 1498 with Vasco Da Gama, did not accept the legitimacy of local Malabar traditions, and had imposed Latin usages, including the appointment of Portuguese bishops, changes in the Eucharistic liturgy, the use of Roman vestments and requirement of clerical celibacy through the Synod of Udayamperoor, held at Udayamperoor, 16 km to the south of Ernakulam in 1599.
At Coonan Cross, Kerala’s Christians protested against these efforts of Latinisation by the Portuguese Padroado missionaries.
As a result, in 1661, the Pope of the Roman Catholics organised a new East-Syrian rite church hierarchy in communion with Rome named the Syro-Malabar church to which 84 of the 116 Saint Thomas Christian communities joined. This church continues to this day as the Syro-Malabar Catholic church.
To this day, it is yet to be settled as to whether the protest was only against the Portuguese or against the Portuguese as well as the Pope of the Roman Catholic church, a matter of conflict between the two factions which formed there on.
The 32 communities which stayed away from the communion with the Roman Catholic church welcomed Mar Gregarious Abdul Jaleel, a bishop sent by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antiochia, thereby also adopting the West Syriac liturgy, its customs and script.
Thus while the Syro-Malabar Church continued with their East Syriac traditions under the Roman Catholic Church, those who adopted the West Syriac liturgical and theological traditions of the Antiochian Patriarchy came to be known as the Malankara Church following its orthodox traditions.
The Malankara faction itself over the years split into many other churches and what remained came to be known as the Yakobaya or Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Christians (not the same as the faction). The newly formed factions born out of splits in the Malankara Church include - the Malabar Independent Syrian Church, also known as the Thozhiyur Church (1772), Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church (1898), St Thomas Evangelical Church of India (1961) and Syro-Malankara Catholic Church (1930).
Further differences after the 1930s brought the Malankara church to a more permanent Jacobite-Orthodox split with the former choosing the common name of the Malankara Church, Yakobaya or Jacobites and calling themselves the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church, while the latter adopted their Orthodox identity and stressed on their independence as Malankara Orthodox Syrian church.
Clergy in both factions were allowed to marry, unlike the Catholics, though to be eligible to become a bishop or higher, celibacy is a pre-condition for both. Their similarities aside, their relationship with the Patriarch of Antioch and tussle over power to control finances proved for the two factions a niggling irritant.
In a way the latest power struggle is the culmination of many such battles within the Saint Thomas Christian communities in Kerala which started off in 1661 with the Coonan Cross Oath, a symbolism not lost on the Jacobites.
In Kothamangalam, last year, members belonging to the Jacobite faction lined up by the roadside, pledging to fight for their rights in the traditions of the Coonan Cross Oath of 1661, one of the first acts of defiance against the colonial Portuguese in India. They called it the Second Koonan Kurishu Sathyam. But unlike the first Coonan Cross Oath wherein protests were against the foreign Portuguese, here it was to be against their own factional rivals.
(In the second part of the series, The Lede looks at the complex legal wrangles between the two factions and how it resulted in church takeovers.)