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St. Thomas Christians in Kerela: Emerging Fault Lines
By Vjay Paul
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The history of Christianity in India began with the arrival of the "Doubting Thomas" better known as Thomas the Apostle, one of the twelve discipline of the Jesus Christ as per the Bible in Muziris (Modern Day Kodungallur in Thrissur District of Kerela) in the year 52 AD.

There he established "Ezharappallika" i.e seven churches or communities in Kodungallur & Palayur in Thrissur District, North Paravur in Ernakulam district, Kokkamangalam in Alappuzha district, Niranan & Chayal in Pathanamthitta district and the city of Kollam (Old Name Quilon).

It was these seven churches established by Thomas the Apostle that led to the growth of Syrian Christians of Kerala. The Saint Thomas Christian or Syrian Christian in Kerela, employ western liturgical rites of the Syriac Christianity. As per the 2011 Indian Census, the total Christian population in Kerela was 19.19% and out of this the Syrian Christian make 70.73%.

Christian Division in Kerela

The Syrian Christians of Kerela reiterate to the traditions of St. Thomas, which were different from the traditions of St. Peters adopted and followed by Rome and thereafter enforced by the Pope on all Christians worldwide. It was not until the "Synod of Diamper" introduced by the Portuguese in 1599 that the Christians of Kerela were brought under Rome. Rome thus recognized the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara liturgical rites alonge with its universally practiced Latin Rite.

The two sects are different from one another, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church based out of Kakkannad, Kochi follows the East Syriac rites while the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church based out of Pattom, Thiruvananthapuram follows the West Syriac Rite.

The Syro-Malabar Church used the same vestment for its clergymen as Rome has approved, which is greatly influenced by the Roman Civilization and uses the Latin rite for liturgical purposes with minor differences, the Syro-Malankara has been using its orthodox vestments as is now a part of the Eastern Church.

Reforms in the Second Vatican Council

The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, or more commonly known as the second Vatican council was the 21stEcumenical council of the Catholic Church. The council which started on October 11, 1962 under Pope John XXII closed three years later on December 8, 1965 under Pope Paul VI. Though the Catholic Church is known for its rigid conservative approach, the second Vatican council shows that reforms were possible in this rigid institution.

Among the major reforms, women no longer had to cover their hair in Church, the Holy Mass (Prayer Service done in the Church) could not be done in local vernacular languages and not in Latin, so that people could understand and participate in the prayer services. The Alter, which until now, back faced people, was turned around to face the people, and this has become a major point of contention today between Rome and the Syro-Malabar Church. Though the Catholic Chruch in the Council made a declaration of Religious Liberty, it laid silent on the issue of Divorce, contraceptives and abortion.

Politics over Christian Divisions

The Pinarayi Vijayan government envisaged a legislature to resolve the contention raised by the 2017 Supreme Court of India order, granting the Syro-Malankara church control over 1100 church and parishes in Kerela, while declaring that the Jacobite's had no legal basis to content for ownership over any of the church. While the Jacobites have welcomed the Vijayan Government's move to introduce a legislature, the Syro-Malankara Chruch finds the legislature, a devious move to the alter the judgement of the Supreme Court of India.

The Jacobite faction arose in 1912 out of a dispute within the Syro-Malankara Chruch over the issue of whether it should be under the Syriac rite based in Antioch (Modern Day Antakya, Turkey) or be Independent. The Jacobite's argued for communion with the Antiochian Patriarchate, the more orthodox faction, argued for its independence. The Supreme Court's Verdict in 2017 did not resolve the problem, and the situation went from bad to worse. Due to Instances of Violence in bigger churches such as Piravom and Kakkannad in Ernakulum in Ernakulum District, Police has to intervene to maintain law and order. The District Collector has to take control of the churches and hand over the keys to the Kerala High Court.

As the Supreme Court of India came down heavily on the state government for non-implementation of its verdict, the state government was in the same dilemma as a few months later it will be in the Sabarimala verdict. The Government of Kerala decided to talk to both the parties but to no benefit and finally decided to end the stalemate by bringing in a new legislature in the Legislative Assembly of Kerala.

Punnadath Rajeev, the then Law Minister of Kerala briefed the LDF (Left Democratic Front) State Committee that the new legislature in violation of the Supreme Court Judgement would allow each faction to exercise its right to worship in churches. While the Supreme Court's verdict was based on the interpretation of the 1934 Malankara Church Constitution.

In February 2023, the Jacobite faction told the Supreme Court that a bill prepared by the Kerala Law Reforms Commission chaired by Justice (Retd) K.T Thomas is pending before the Government of Kerala, replying to this the Orthodox Syro-Malankara stated that the Government of Kerala had made it clear that it had no such intension, while the Advocate General of Kerala (Highest Law Officer of the Government) was silent on the matter.

As this Issues drags with Government of Kerala trying to appease both the factions, on August 17, 2023 Catholics under the Syro-Malabar church burned an order from Archbishop Cyril Vasil, Delegate of the Pope. Archbishop Cyril Vasil was appointed by the Vatican to find a solution to a decade-old liturgy dispute, had threatened the priests, bishops and non-clergy persons with excommunication if they fail to comply with the Latin rite rules of serving the Holy Mass.

To this out of the 328 parishes only 6 complied with the Synod-approved uniform mode of Rome, the remaining stuck to their traditional Convention leaving the Vatican Red Faced and Embarrassed. The Crux of the matter is protracted controversy, wherein the synod-approved liturgy (Latin Rite of the Rome) asks priests to face the people while offering the Holy Mass, the Syro-Malabar Catholics refused to follow this Vatican Council II Rules and adhere to their own traditional norms of facing the alters during the Holy Mass. There seems to be no solutions and the Syro-Malabar catholic church stands in open defiance to the Pope, looking to be an independent church.

Connecting the Dots

While the History of Christianity in Kerala is as old as Christ itself, the almost 20% Christian population of Kerala is a fragmented group each having acrimonious relations with each other. The Church usually divided between the Catholic and the Protestants, in Kerala is seeing new variation with factions within factions. The Eastern Church, the Protestants, the Catholic are themselves not in order and infighting between these groups over traditions and conventions are only increasing.

The Religious-Socio demography of Kerala is getting more and more complicated with more than 50% Hindus divided among themselves into various sects and factions, while around 25% Muslims also share the fruits of fragmentation. These factionalisms have been known for long, and the Politics of Kerala has adopted to this, but this increasing factionalism among the Christian might look an internal issue as of now, but with time it will have larger socio-political and economic repercussions.

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