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 the1934 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 court has asked for the keys to the churches to be handed over,” says Fr Jose. “What about the many institutions of the church? There will be enough issues for the two factions to fight legal cases for another century,” he says.
“There are hospitals, engineering colleges, nursing colleges, dental colleges and numerous shopping complexes in and around Kothamangalam owned by the church, properties running into thousands of crores’ worth.”
While The Lede was not able to independently ascertain the actual worth of the properties being transferred, a senior clergyman belonging to the Jacobite faction put it at between Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 crore in turnover.
While the priests had the clarity to call this a civil case - a property dispute - for the lay parishioner, it is the emotional chords which pull strong closer to heart.
“Judiciary should reconsider this judgement,” requests Babu speaking to The Lede. “There should be a referendum and election under the oversight of the government. Those with a majority should be allowed to take control. That is how it should have been democratically solved. What the court has done instead is unfair,” he pleads.
Piravom and Mulanthuruthy are amongst the more prominent churches that have been taken over by the district administrations. While Mulanthuruthy still remains to be handed over, Piravom has seen the transfer of powers. And a steep fall in churchgoers consequently.
“As far as the Bishop’s faction are concerned, they have got a lot of churches as per the Supreme Court judgement,” says Fr Jose P.
“But one also needs to look into how many parishioners they have gained by virtue of this change in ownership. Not even one Jacobite is willing to shift to their beliefs. Even when their ancestors’ churches are being lost and believers removed from their own churches, no one is willing to move away from their beliefs. Many of the churches are thus being left abandoned and locked after takeover. Why then are they forcefully grabbing control of our churches still?” he asks.
“The only people who stand to lose here are the priests and other senior clergy who are not in adherence to the law,” insists Fr Elias Cherukattu of Piravom Syrian Orthodox Church. “To a great extent, it is these people who are pushing parishioners out of the churches. Since their existence has come to be questioned, they are now resorting to confusing the believers and forcing them to leave the parish membership itself,” he alleges.
“200 people maybe,” says Fr Elias when asked how many attended masses in his church. Piravom had seen a major tussle before the takeover. “But that is more or less the same as before for the first mass I think,” he says.
“The second mass on Sunday sees around 600 people at least,” he insists when pressed for more.
Was there a significant fall? “There might be a small fall in number,” admits Fr Elias. A fall which Jacobites claim is in the thousands as they say Piravom was not so long ago a major church with 3000 families and more than 10,000 parishioners.
After the takeover, below the hill where the road turn leftwards to Piravom Syrian Orthodox Church, in a makeshift arrangement of sorts, the Jacobites had quickly put together a church with tin sheet roofs. It is here that they conduct their prayers now.
The cemetery has been allowed for use to believers from both factions equally, a point of conflict perhaps for many more years to come but perceived differently by both factions. While Fr Jose of the Jacobite faction holds that it will cause constant problems going into the future, Fr Elias has a different view.
“If one asks me, the shared usage of cemetery is the best thing that could happen to the Orthodox faction,” says Fr Elias. “Jacobites would want to come visit their ancestors every now and then. And each such visit would eventually mean that they cannot separate themselves from the church easily.”
In the battle for power and property, the dead too are a point of leverage. Both clergy seem to look at these as transactional points they stand to gain from.
“After the takeover in Piravom church last year, when a person died, the Jacobite clergy ran to their home with a cross and conducted prayers in their makeshift church, only bringing the body here for funeral,” says Fr Elias.
“The family kept coming to the cemetery to pray for 40 days and wanted the 41st day prayers to be held in the old church. The Jacobite faction came and sat here on dharna. That is how they are taking it forward,” he blames. “Luckily for us, we had prior knowledge of the protests and had shifted the prayers to their home.”
“They have got BJP’s support,” said a Jacobite clergyman, preferring anonymity, about their rivals. “That is how they have got this judgement,” he insisted.
The BJP, during the bye-elections in Konni constituency in Pathanamthitta district last year had indeed weighed in for the Orthodox faction which forms a considerable part of the electorate there.
Its candidate K Surendran openly announced that BJP supports the Orthodox side in their factional fight against Jacobites.
Senior functionaries of the Orthodox community weighed in against the UDF (United Democratic Front led by the Congress) in the build-up to the election, claiming that the constituency which had over 50,000 votes from the community, half of whom typically voted for the UDF, would go some other way.
Adoor Prakash of the Congress who had been winning the constituency since 1991 with increasing margins had resigned upon winning the Attingal Lok Sabha constituency necessitating the by-election.
In the run-up to the elections, K Surendran the BJP candidate was confident enough to claim that he will get the constituency's minority votes including that of Orthodox Church followers. This, many had taken to suggest an arrangement that the party had arrived at with the community.
“We never asked for anyone’s support,” says Fr Elias Cherukattu, assistant vicar of Piravom Syrian Orthodox church. “Why should we go out of our way to say no to any support that comes to us?” he asks though.
“Anyway the Orthodox church never tells people who to vote for nor will people vote even if we were to say so. But the UDF and LDF (Left Democratic Front led by the CPM and CPI) have been of no use for our cause. They would say something and then develop cold feet. Until now, no government even tried to execute the Supreme Court orders. Last assembly election we supported the Left but they didn’t act after coming to power. It was only after the Supreme Court berated the state that things are moving now. Traditionally, believers of Orthodox church vote for the Congress. So even if we were to ask them, it seems implausible that they will vote for the BJP,” he reasoned.
But the results suggest some did.
K Surendran of the BJP managed to secure 39,786 votes in the Konni bye-election, nearly 29% of the votes; the BJP candidate had garnered just 11% votes in 2016.
While the NSS (Nair Service Society) took a pro-UDF stand and the SNDP (Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam) supported the Left, it was the Orthodox faction that the BJP had courted apart from its core vote bank.
While Surendran came third, losing to CPI(M)’s candidate, KU Jeneesh Kumar, who gained from the renewed traditional support for his party in the absence of Adoor Prakash, according to experts, the depleted leads for the Congress in Mylapra and Konni town, where the votes of the Orthodox Christian community were significant, suggested an impressive performance for BJP in these areas.
Congress had held leads of 1500 to 2000 in both Mylapra and Konni earlier. But it suffered loss of votes in the by-election.
The UDF, though it came second with their candidate P Mohanraj getting 44,146 votes also faced the brunt for not choosing Robin Peter, an Orthodox leader who was preferred by Adoor Prakash, the MLA who had resigned.
The statement of the UDF convener Benny Behanan, a Jacobite, suggesting support for the Jacobites, had also irked the community in the build-up to the election.
Come 2021, elections will be held to both the Legislative Assembly as well as the panchayat bodies in Kerala. The mood of the Jacobites on the streets in Kothamangalam and Mulanthuruthy is that they intend to remember everything that is happening.
With no political party coming forward in their support, it is as yet unclear which way they can sway.
“The Jacobites hold considerable sway in numbers in Kunnathunadu, Angamaly, Muvattupuzha and Kothamangalam constituencies,” says Fr Elias belonging to Orthodox faction.
“In Piravom and Ernakulam town constituencies too they enjoy good presence, although there is good presence of Orthodox Christians too in these two constituencies,” he says.
“If someone from our community who has taken part in the protests against the church takeover now is put up, we will definitely vote them to power,” says Mary Johnny sitting in her shop opposite the now lost church in Mulanthuruthy, waiting for a chance to avenge the humiliation.
The Jacobites will sever their ties with the Orthodox faction, said Mor Gregorios Joseph, head of the Jacobite faction, appearing in a press conference this week. It effectively would mean that the Jacobites would cease to be part of the Malankara traditions and become an independent church.
The Jacobites, he said, will be open for negotiation only if the Orthodox faction stopped their attempts to take control of the Jacobite held churches. He said this while also requesting the state government to bring in an ordinance to protect the Jacobite churches.
In reply, the head of the Orthodox faction, Catholicos Baselios Marthoma Paulose II ruled out any negotiation until all churches had been taken over.
The clergy fought, the clergy lost, is the long story short.
But the parishioners it seems are intent on taking it upon themselves to carry the fire to the woods.
The losing clergy carry fuel in their beak while the winning side intend to go for the kill.
None of it involves religion. It is also all about religion.