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.
The factionalism which had begun to brew in the 1930s eventually resulted in a split in the 1950s. The factions went to court, which ruled the 1934 constitution valid. Following this judgement in 1958, the two factions united in the 1960s.
The union stayed intact from 1964 to 1971. During this time, intermarriages between the two factions were common and the two factions once again became indistinguishable.
But differences amongst the clergy soon reappeared.
“In 1971, the Jacobite faction walked out of the Episcopal Synod. The friction was over the usage of red ink by the Kottayam Catholicos similar to the one used by the Patriarch of the Antioch. That the Catholicos deemed itself equal to the Patriarch was objected to,” says Fr Elias Cherukattu.
“In 1975, a case was filed and the court in 1981 ruled that the two groups would handle the churches according to the majority they held in each individual church.”
It was by virtue of this arrangement that at Mulanthuruthy church, which had 80% Jacobites, the Jacobites were allowed to conduct masses on four continuous Sundays with every fifth Sunday being reserved for the Orthodox faction.
“Their rights were stringently adhered to and those from the Orthodox faction weren’t allowed to use the church for any other purposes but for the single mass on every fifth Sunday,” says Fr Sleeba. In short, no ground was ceded by either faction.
Right next to the old church at Mulanthuruthy, the Orthodox group today has a newly built building completed three years back for mass to be held. This was for the days when they had no rights to enter the old church. And by the old church, the Jacobites have a small chapel with tin sheets, to conduct prayers on the fifth Sunday.
“We weren’t expecting to get the church ever,” says Siju Johnny, sexton of the Orthodox church at the Orthodox Centre in Mulanthuruthy.
“This was initially a small makeshift arrangement. Three years back we renovated it with a hall and other facilities for conducting functions and other ceremonies like baptism and marriages,” he says.
“In the 1990s, a tussle arose over who should be appointed as the Malankara Metropolitan, the position which held control over the properties of the church,” says Fr Elias.
“The existing Malankara Metropolitan had passed away. The Catholicos belonging to the Orthodox faction being the senior most, had a claim. Jacobites objected. They went to court. It is important to remember that it was they who went to court.” The Malankara Metropolitan is in whom the trusteeship of the church rested and was hence the custodian of its properties, a right for which the two factions have historically fought.
“A Court ruling in 1995 asked for a Malankara Association to be held in which all office bearers including the Malankara Metropolitan was elected according to the 1934 constitution. The court appointed a retired justice to arrange the association,” says Fr Elias.
“Office bearers in each church are elected from amongst the parish goers to form the parish council. The Orthodox faction had more number of churches under their control while the Jacobites had more number of people in their churches. They feared losing out. Before the planned meeting, the Jacobite section withdrew from participation,” says Fr Elias. “This was just a few days before the meeting and after many meetings were held to plan the Malankara Association.”
“The Malankara Association went ahead and elected office bearers including the Metropolitan according to the 1934 constitution. A few bishops from the Jacobite faction also attended, breaking ranks. But the rival Jacobite faction held a separate meeting of their own on the same day, elected a Catholicos (a spiritual head of the church unit in Kerala territory, similar to the Tibetan Panchan Lama or Dalai Lama. The Catholicos is equal to the Patriarch, but not the Patriarch) of their own and eventually adopted a Constitution in 2002.” The parallel authorities of the Jacobite faction continued to control the churches under them.
“They do not accept the Kottayam Catholicos and still refer to him as the bishop,” says Fr Elias, a point stressed by the Jacobites jointly calling the Orthodox faction as Methran Kakshi - supporters of the Bishop, a position much lower than Catholicos.
“Their Catholicos has not been confirmed as a Catholicos by the Patriarch of Antioch and is only a Maphrian which is below the Patriarch whereas a Catholicos holds equal position to a Patriarch,” claims Fr Elias stressing on the lower standing of the highest clergyman of the Jacobites within the spiritual hierarchies.
“Today, after the judgment of 2017 and Supreme Court’s berating of the Kerala government for not acting, one by one, churches are being transferred to us by the administration. In total 1064 churches were to come to the Orthodox faction. Out of these around 300 were held by the Jacobites. 50 have been taken. 250 more churches remain. We are approaching court for each individual church and getting orders for the handover. They went to court against the judgement on Kolenchery and brought this on themselves. The court had, on all previous occasions, asked the factions to stay united. They have no one else to blame for their plight now,” he says.
“There is actually no need for us to even go to court for each church separately,” says Fr Elias. “But administration is dragging its feet. So we are doing it.”
“They had got included in the list names of many Cappelas along with their churches thereby giving themselves more voting rights. We realised it late,” says Fr Jose Paruthuvayal, Vicar of Kothamangalam Cheriya Palli.
Cappelas in Kerala Christian traditions are small chapels where masses and prayers are only rarely held and which do not have the status of parishes with their own registered parishioners. There could be numerous Cappelas under each parish. Cappelas also do not have dedicated parish priests though temporary arrangements could exist.
“Walking out of the Malankara Association was probably wrong,” admits Fr Jose. “It was organised by the court. Maybe we should not have stayed away.” But he is not ready to cede any further ground.
For it is his church, among the biggest ones, which will soon face a takeover bid. A bid he is determined and preparing to challenge. The Second Coonan Cross Oath, organised by the Jacobites and the letters made to be written by children with symbolic blood were all part of the resistance.
But legally, the Jacobite faction no longer have any rights to the churches irrespective of the oaths and public acts of mobilisation they have been organising. But there is more to it.
“The court has told the Collector to take hold of the keys to the church,” says Fr Jose Paruthuvayal, the Jacobite Vicar of Kothamangalam Cheriya Palli.
“Under this church here, thousands of people find work. There are numerous families who make a living. This is going to create a huge social unrest. There is no doubt about that. All those institutions were working under the church until now.
The church itself is situated on lands given by the Karthas, who ruled this place, to our forefathers. How can they take it away? Where will all the thousands of churchgoers go to?” he asks raising points about the long tradition, points he feels, make a case to prevent a takeover.
“There is nothing for the members of the church to be worried with the ongoing execution of the court orders,” says Fr Elias from the Orthodox faction about pending takeovers.
“The court has nowhere asked for Jacobites to be expelled from the church after takeover. All parishioners are given full freedom to continue worshipping in the churches. The court has just asked them to function as per the law. Those continuing with the churches will, of course, have to pay adherence to the laws governing the church. Court has said that the constitution of 1934 is the underlying system which is to govern the church. Those who are willing to submit to that will not have to leave the church,” he says.
“But won’t we then have to forego our beliefs and allegiance to the Patriarch of the Antioch?” asks Alvin Sonet Paul, a lay member of the Jacobite church in Kuruppampady which is also in line to be transferred.
“How will that be acceptable for believers?” asks Fr Jose P about accepting the 1934 constitution which he says has also been amended multiple times.
“The Kerala Orthodox Christians form 82% of the total Christians under the Church of Antioch today,” cites Fr Elias. “Inspite of this, the Church of Antioch has made it impossible for a clergy from here to become the Patriarch. Why should we put up with such a system? The church itself is running for cover with Islam having taken over its traditional strongholds.”
The Patriarch of Antioch has shifted bases from Antioch to Damascus and now Lebanon after the rise of ISIS.
“Lebanon itself which was not so long ago a Christian country is now a Muslim majority country,” he says.
“When the new Patriarch was elected, the Catholicos from Kottayam wasn’t even invited. Why should we recognise the Patriarch who we didn’t elect? Catholicos is equal in hierarchy with the Patriarch according to tradition and is supposed to be the one who conducts the Patriarch’s appointment ceremony. Why would anyone put up with such a system? We are independent and just like the Russian Orthodox church we are the Indian Orthodox Church,” argues Fr Elias C, explaining why the Patriarch of Antioch was of no significance in reality.
On the ground, in Kothamangalam - a bastion of Jacobites, a turf war over rights of the majority is brewing.
“This judgement has given the minority faction in Kothamangalam the majority rights,” decries Babu N, a parishioner of the Kothamangalam Cheriya Palli who is also employed as an attender under the church.
“There are around 2000 families here. Out of these only 10-12 families belong to the Orthodox faction. It is to them that the court has ordered the collector to hand over the keys. How can that be allowed?” asks Babu.
“When the problems began two years back, there were no one belonging to the Orthodox faction in this church,” says Fr Jose.
“In the past two years only one person, Thomas Paul Rumbaan, have come forward openly claiming to be from the Orthodox faction. If you look at it, it is amply clear that one person alone will not be able to manage this church. How will he continue after expelling all the believers?” asks Fr Jose.
Fr Thomas Paul Ramban himself once belonged to the Jacobite faction and any conversation about him in Kothamangalam soon goes south with language shifting to long censor-worthy slurs.
“If you ask him his SSLC certificate, it will show him as belonging to Yakobaya Church,” says Babu. “His father was part of the parish governing body here earlier. They had a fallout and joined the Orthodox,” he says.
Fr Thomas Paul, who is a local has not been allowed into the church for some time now. He is the legally appointed Vicar, appointed as per the 1934 constitution, a parallel position on which Fr Jose is now presiding in Kothamangalam, illegally.
“If I join them, they will make me the Vicar too,” scoffs Fr Jose. “There have been many Jacobite priests who joined the Orthodox faction. It is the winning side to which people always flock to. We have never had anyone joining us,” he says breaking into a mocking laugh.
“As members of Malankara Church, irrespective of which faction one belongs to, believers will face no difficulty in meeting their spiritual needs if they continue attending the church,” insists Fr Elias from the Orthodox faction.
“The other possibility for them is to leave behind the church of their ancestors and shift to some sort of makeshift arrangement in the form of sheds or such and go their own way. This, each person can decide for themselves. They definitely have the freedom to do that.”
Fr Elias Cherukattu, now the Assistant Vicar of Piravom church once belonged to the Jacobite faction too. But he is now a firm supporter of the Orthodox cause.
“I joined the Orthodox church much earlier as I felt wrongly about what was going on. Members of my parish wanted to join too. Otherwise it was difficult for a priest. It is also difficult for believers to switch over by themselves. Many are afraid of being called turncoats and traitors. But it is for individuals to decide what they want,” he says.
“Where will we go to after leaving all this behind?” asks Babu when asked about his plans after handover.
“Even though the court has ruled against us, if it comes to executing those orders, we will resist it fully,” says Fr Jose. “We have no other means left.”
“As members of the church, we have decided to resist and protest to the maximum extent possible,” Babu too has the same plan.
“The situation in Kothamangalam has reached a fever pitch,” says Alvin Sonet. Alvin, nearing his thirties has no special interest in the brouhaha, but says the reaction of parishioners has him worried.
“I fear violence if they try to take over the Kothamangalam church.” As a member of a family following Jacobite faction, he finds the general hysteria embarrassing.
“The church is held very close by the locals, irrespective of religion,” he says. The Kothamangalam Cheriya Palli is said to be 1100 years old while the Valiya Palli is 1500 years old. “People are already talking like there could be something terrible if it is taken over. But it is not like people understand the issues fully. I don’t understand the issues fully. If you speak to these people about the case history, they won’t either,” he says. “But it is emotions that have taken over. It has become like Sabarimala.”
“We have very secular participation in the church’s activities,” says Fr Jose P. “Our main celebrations are started off by lamps lit by a Hindu family who had long ago donated land for the church.” And this local support he hopes to count on when the time for takeover comes.
Apart from the physical resistance of not handing over the church keys, Fr Jose is also seeking other measures to stall a takeover. Attempts have been on to give away the Church and its buildings to be designated as Corona treatment facilities. While one of the buildings is already a COVID-19 treatment centre, its name does not figure in the list released by the administration. Kothamangalam at the time was under containment zone restrictions too, something they hope will help their cause.
“I believe firmly that we will not have to give away this church. I have faith,” he said when asked about the eventuality.
As The Lede was still at the church, attempts were on to correct the missing name from administration’s list.
“As far as we are concerned, we are not willing to submit to the Bishop’s faction,” says Fr Jose. “All our ancestors are buried here. This is where we have been worshipping for years. So we will resist. This is because we are left with no other way. It is not out of disrespect for the court.” Even if the church is taken over, Fr Jose says troubles will not end any time soon.
“Majority of people of the church are staying strong in their beliefs of the Antiochian traditions. And they will be frequenting the church in times to come. Each of those will spark off newer conflicts. So for a solution to emerge, it has to be through negotiation and compromise with both parties agreeing to it. Else the conflicts are going to continue in times to come.”
“Justice Arun Mishra will retire on September 02,” Fr Jose says when asked if the Jacobites intend to go to court again. “Right now the case is being considered as a matter of civil dispute. We will try to take it to the belief bench, the ninth bench of the Supreme Court. We will get justice there,” he says. The legal battle it seems is all set and ready to return.
“Both the parties had given in writing to the court earlier that the case had nothing to do with beliefs,” says Fr Elias. “That is how it came to be treated as a civil dispute to begin with.”
The fight is eventually about property, more so than anything else. Both the factions had made this crystal clear in court too. The Kothamangalam church building and its surrounding areas are spread over 2.25 acres at the centre of the town, well worth crores of rupees by itself. There are 1064 churches in total, 250 more to be transferred. The stakes are high.
(In the third part of this series, The Lede will take the reader through how political support from the key parties in Kerala is muddying the waters.)