Kerala is one of the lands where Christianity came in the early ages, even before it reached Europe from its birthplace, Southwest Asia. It is believed that St.Thomas, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ, travelled to India after the crucifixion (and resurrection) of Jesus, knowing that there are Jews in Kerala.
In recent times, the news of a recurring church dispute in Kerala is frequently grabbing the headlines. A dramatic scene played out on September 26, 2019, at the historic St. Mary’s Church in Piravom in Ernakulam, when there was a standoff between hundreds of churchgoers and the state administration and police. Some people even threatened to jump into a nearby river if their church was taken away from them. With some new development or the other every few days, many are confused what this is all about.
To understand the present crisis within a faction of the Kerala Christian community, one should have some idea of the history of Kerala Christianity. Then one would know why there are so many denominations within the Christian community. The current dispute is between the Orthodox Church and the Jacobite Church of the Kerala Christian tradition.
Main Christian Denominations
The main traditions of Christianity in Kerala are as following, according to its population:
1. The Catholic
2. The Orthodox
3. The Protestants or the Renovation Churches
1. The Catholic Church
The Catholic Church follows the Pope as its supreme head. It has within it four traditions, and each owes its rite and style to its origin:
- The Syro Malabar rite
- The Latin Catholics
- The Malankara Catholic Church which follows Syrian Orthodox tradition but accepts Pope as its head
- The Kananite Catholic
2. The Orthodox Tradition Church
Orthodox Tradition Church has three factions:
- The Indian Orthodox Church which is an autocephalous church whose supreme head is in India
- The Jacobite Church that accepts the Patriarch of Antioch (Syria) as its head.
- The Mar Thoma Church which is also an autocephalous church now.
3. The Protestant groups:
- Church of South India-CSI (though they follow priestly tradition, they are spirited by the ideals of John Calvin and Martin Luther who started Renovation churches with the ideals of Renaissance Europe; has sisterly relation with the Anglican Church);
- The Salvation Army
- The Seventh Day Adventists
- Innumerable Pentecostal ministries who have no hierarchy and organizational structure but work under individual pastors. Anyone can start a ministry and preach, but they don’t believe in adding assets for the ministry, therefore it may end with the pastor’s death or abandoning of it.
The present situation of court cases and police action was a result of about 100 years of dispute between two factions of the Orthodox tradition, i.e. Jacobite and Orthodox churches.
Beginning of Dispute
After the arrival of Portuguese missionaries in India, the early Roman Catholics started influencing the indigenous “Malankara Nasranis” of Kerala in many ways to bring the ancient church under their control, to unify it with the Roman church under the Pope, and to “civilize Indian Christians”. They used money, material comforts and often threats to the priests of Malankara Nasranis to fulfil their wish. Initially, the local priests did not understand the intention of the European Catholics.
Synod of Diamper
A Synod of Diamper (Udayamperoor) was held in 1599 under the presidentship of Archbishop Menezes which was attended by many Latin bishops and priests. The Malankara Nasrani chieftains were invited in the Synod. A resolution was passed at the end of seven days, in which the chieftains were persuaded to sign the resolution that they are accepting Pope as their Pontiff. Gradually, the Portuguese destroyed the manuscripts of Malankara Nasranis, ignored their ritual customs (which had close resemblance with Hindu traditions in their style, art performances, style of worship and rituals). They destroyed or modified the altars of the indigenous churches and so on. Gradually, the Malankara Nasranis felt worried and lost and wanted to get rid of this cultural and physical annexation.
The Koonan Cruz Oath
Saint Thomas Christian priests and chieftains assembled at Mattancherry island near current Kochi on January 3, 1653, after 54 years of Synod of Diamper. They protested the Portuguese authority and wanted to maintain the tradition of their culture. They planted a stone cross and took oath to protect the culture of original Saint Thomas Christians, touching the cross and those who can’t directly touch, held a rope which was bound to the cross so that many people can take part in the oath. With this they broke out of the Portuguese authority. They ordained Archdeacon Thomas as Mar Thoma I.
Though this was done, the apostolic lineage, the hand touch of a priest was a problem for them. From time to time, they invited bishops from Antioch, Persia and Greece for their ordination. Gradually, a major group of the church broke away and gave loyalty to the Pope again, but this time they got permission to maintain their own rite, and not to join under the authority of the Latin Church (Portuguese in this case). This group later became Syro Malabar church.
The other group remained unaltered, remained independent, and continued receiving ordination from the Patriarch of Antioch till the last decade of the 19th century.
In 1895, Moran Mor Ignatius Abded Mshiho II became the Patriarch of Antioch. He was in favour of creating an independent autocephalous church in India. He declared the Indian Orthodox Church as an independent church and ordained Baselios Thomas I as the first Catholicos (head bishop) of independent Malankara Orthodox Church in 1912. Now within this church, a group was not happy with the ordination of Catholicos. They waited till another Patriarch took authority in Antioch. With the help of the new Patriarch, they split the church and brought a faction under direct control of the new Patriarch. This group is the present Jacobite Church.
In 1934, the Malankara Orthodox Church adopted its own constitution after deliberations and representations from over 1000 member churches. The constitution applies to those who accept Catholicos as their spiritual head and the Holy synod of bishops. The church has a parliament which is known as the Malankara Association. It is constituted with two elected members from each member church. The Association can approve or reject amendment of the Constitution or any other proposals put forth by the Synod. Before presenting a decision to the Association, the synod of bishops should pass the resolution with majority vote. If the Association passes the resolution with majority vote, it becomes law of the church.
The British India Supreme court accepted the Orthodox Church as the official church and its 1934 constitution as the official governing rule of the church. The Jacobite group filed petition in courts for the ownership of churches. When cases in subordinate courts became numerous, the Supreme Court took over all the cases. The case continued till 1958, and the Hon’ble Supreme Court ordered in favour of the Orthodox faction. It also ordered Jacobite faction to pay penalty of Rs 1,50,000 to the Catholicos as compensation for long years of litigation. Unable to pay the compensation, the Jacobite group pleaded negotiation, and joined the Orthodox Church accepting Catholicos as their spiritual head, on the condition that Orthodox would accept Patriarch of Antioch as ‘first among equals’ when they address a public assembly or lead the Holy mass together. The Orthodox Church accepted this condition under counter mandate that Patriarch will not send any ‘Decree’ to the Catholicos.
The validity of the Supreme Court order to pay penalty ended in 1970, after 12 years. In 1972, a group of priests of the old Jacobite group, without permission of the Catholicos, went to Antioch (Syria) and got some priests ordained as Bishops. Looking for inroads into the territory of Indian church, the Patriarch ordained the candidates and sent them back to India. They came back and broke away from the church again. They established authority and took away membership of the Orthodox loyals in churches where their own followers were in majority. This led to litigation again in various courts and in the Supreme Court. The Jacobites argued cancellation of 1934 Constitution. The case continued till 1995, and the Supreme Court, after detailed hearing, held that 1934 Constitution was official and declared the Jacobite claim as illegal. Now they started filing petitions in the local courts claiming ownership for local parishes in which their supporters are in majority. Again, the cases went to the apex court. On July 3, 2017, the Supreme Court ordered that all churches which existed prior to 1972 and later constructed by the Orthodox Church would be ruled by the 1934 constitution, and priests appointed by Orthodox Bishops will lead Holy mass in those churches. Since then, Orthodox has started taking control of churches with the help of execution orders they obtained from various courts under the main Supreme Court verdicts of 1995 and 2017. At times, the Supreme Court has warned Kerala High Court for disposing some churches in favour of Jacobite faction. It strictly warned the state government of consequences for not enforcing its order. It further went on to warn the state Chief Secretary of imprisonment if the order is not enforced within strict time limits.
All in all, the causes of dispute are motivated by emotional attachment, money and employment of priests and authority of bishops. It is for independence from Syria by Orthodox, and for huge church assets. If the churches are lost, the members will continue to be members of the same parish and elect their representatives to the Association. But to the Jacobite group, their bishops may lose authority and priests may lose their jobs. The Christian church estates in Kerala include medical colleges, engineering colleges, and other educational institutions which make huge profits apart from plush parishes. Currently, about 160 parishes are under the control of Jacobites but court order is in favour of Orthodox.
Note: In many Kerala Christian families, members of the same family follow different churches, according to the convenience of going to the nearest parish, wherever they are located.