Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis for the Malankara Orthodox Synod

The synod of the Malankara Orthodox Church is meeting on Wednesday (May 23), where a decision on the response to the visiting Patriarch’s letter to the Catholicos calling for direct talks, is likely to be taken. The faithful across the divide who hope for unity, especially members of families which have suffered for generations due to direct and indirect involvement in litigation and other disputes, are hoping that the synod will take a positive decision on holding talks. 

At the same time, the faithful are aware that there are extremists on the prowl, more so among the Jacobites, eager to create rifts and promote misunderstandings. At the moment, they are trying to blow out of proportion, certain poor choice of words made by Patriarch Aphrem II at Tuesday’s press conference following the Jacobite synod meet in Puthencruz. By blowing up these comments, they hope that the Malankara Orthodox Church will be provoked into ruling out any talks with the Patriarch. Through this one move, the Jacobite extremists who are now in a legal cul-de-sac, hope to once again revive their fortunes by legal adventurism on the one hand, and holding the Patriarch hostage on the other.
Let us now analyze what the Patriarch said.  In response to a provocative question by a reporter whether he would enter Parumala St Peter and Paul Church, the Patriarch said: “I just came by a fact that the Parumala property is in the name of the Patriarch for a long time. But I am not here to claim it. I am not here to create misunderstanding. But Parumala (he meant St Gregorios of Parumala) is a saint that we all love and respect, and seek intercession. And I have been there many times, not as a Patriarch, but as a Metropolitan.”

It is clear that he was misinformed. There was never any doubt, and never will be on the legality of the ownership of Parumala St Peter and Paul’s Church, which is a pilgrim center of renown since Saint Gregorios is entombed there. So there is zero room for any fresh controversy there.

In my view, the Orthodox Synod at its meeting should focus on the actions of the Patriarch in the run-up and during his visit to India than on a few poorly chosen words. First, he framed his visit as a response to the invite by the Metropolitan of the Simhasana Churches. The Simhasana or thronal parishes are those parishes in India which the Supreme Court in 1997 has accepted to be under the Patriarch’s administrative control. Second, he made it clear through statements and actions that he will not enter any of the 1,064 parishes which are legally to be administered by the 1934 constitution as per the July 3, 2017, verdict of the Supreme Court. Third, he addressed the Catholicos as “His Holiness” in his letter, which de facto attests to the Syriac Church recognizing the autocephaly and independence of the Malankara Orthodox Church. Fourth, though the visit was planned at short notice, he co-ordinated with the Kerala Chief Minister’s office, and kept it informed since the Chief Minister had previously written to the Patriarch, inviting him to take the lead in holding peace negotiations. 

 Story of Two Letters from Khrushchev

Some may say that it is not apt to draw a lesson from 20th century political history because these are  matters of faith and the debates and disputes involve differences over theological interpretations as well. But nevertheless since the dispute has a temporal side to it and affects the wellbeing of every Church member, let us look to history to draw some lessons.

The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 was triggered by news reports that the Soviet Union was building nuclear missile bases in Cuba and Soviet ships were on way to Cuba with nuclear missiles for these bases. Since Cuba was only miles away from Florida in the US, and the missiles placed there could target even New York or Washington, the Americans were worried. The whole world shook at the likelihood of a nuclear war after the US declared a naval blockade to prevent Soviet ships bringing missiles to Cuba.

During this period, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and US President John Kennedy exchanged many letters. But two of them were considered significant. On October 26, Khrushchev sent a telegram to Kennedy, offering to dismantle the sites if Kennedy would lift the blockade and agree not to invade Cuba. But the very next day, even before Kennedy could reply, Khrushchev sent another sterner letter, demanding that Kennedy also dismantle American missile bases in Turkey.  Historians now consider the first letter to have been written by Khrushchev personally, and that the second, more official-sounding letter with conditions, was dictated after discussions with party leaders. Unfortunately, on the same day when the second letter was received, an American U2 plane was shot down over Cuba.  

Lesson from Kennedy: Sometimes Ignorance Can Be Strategic

It looked as if war was about to happen. Let us look at what Kennedy, advised by his brother and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, did. A.) John Kennedy ignored the incident of the plane being shot down.  B.) He also ignored Khrushchev’s second, sterner letter. He pretended it was never received.  

Instead, he simply wrote in response to the first letter that he would lift the blockade and agree not to invade Cuba if Khrushchev would dismantle the missile bases. But secretly, he told Khrushchev that he would dismantle the American missile bases in Turkey soon. And thus, a global nuclear crisis was averted.

Needed: A Wise Decision from the Synod

It is this kind of wisdom that the faithful in Malankara look forward to from their Synod today. A.) It should focus on the actions of the Patriarch. B.) It should ignore the poor choice of words of the Patriarch on Parumala because it was likely a mischievous question and the Patriarch was misinformed. Instead, it should focus only on the Patriarch’s actions and reply positively to his letter inviting the Catholicos for talks.

At the same time, the Synod should affirm that the basis for such talks would be the 1934 constitution, the Supreme Court decree of 1997, and the July 3 judgment from the same court which clarified the extent and scope of the 1997 decree and removed all vagueness in interpreting it. This is more than a century-old dispute and it won’t be resolved overnight. But at least a beginning should be made now, to have direct talks with the Patriarch since he has travelled all the way to India with the sole purpose of finding peace in the Church.

While drafting its reply, let the synod of the Malankara Orthodox Church remember the parting words of the Patriarch at the same press conference: “But this time, I am not here to create any misunderstanding or deepen the division. Therefore, I have decided not to visit any of the Churches that maybe having dispute over it. I will limit my visit only to certain monasteries that are either under Simhasana or they are in the name of the Patriarch in order not to create any more disharmony in the Church here or for the faithful.”

Let wise counsel prevail. Let us defeat the forces of disharmony and strife.

  • Georgy S Thomas

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