On Christmas Eve, Why Two Factions of Kerala Christians are Fighting it Out on Streets

Big business and enormous wealth. Those are the real reasons behind the never-ending quarrel between Jacobite Syrian Church and Orthodox Syrian Church playing out now in the streets of Kerala.

Jacob George |

Updated:December 21, 2018, 8:11 PM IST

“Take these things away. Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise”, said an angry Jesus, expelling merchants and money changers from the Temple in Jerusalem. He became angry seeing people selling oxen and sheep within the Temple. “Jesus made a whip of cords and drove them all out of the Temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables,” reads Chapter 2, Verse 15 of the Gospel of John in the New Testament in the Bible.

The root cause behind the never-ending quarrel between the Jacobite Syrian Church and the Orthodox Syrian Church playing out now in the streets of Kerala is nothing but big business and wealth. Each of the two factions has enormous wealth. And there are scores of schools, colleges, hospitals and other institutions run by individual churches, which add to the wealth. All this besides the real estate value of the properties of the churches. The more than half a century old fight between the two factions of the Malankara Christians has taken a new turn with Thomas Paul Ramban, a priest of the Orthodox faction trying to enter the Marthoma Cheriapally in Kothamangalam, Ernakulam district, belonging to the rival Jacobite faction and hundreds of the church members blocking his way near the church.

The protracted legal fight has culminated in the 1995 Supreme Court verdict which came in favour of the Orthodox faction, giving them authority over all the churches and its properties. The Supreme Court has ordered that 1100 parishes and the churches under the two factions of the Malankara Church should be governed by the Orthodox faction. The rival faction, the Jacobite Church, which has allegiance to the Patriarch of Antioch, doesn’t accept this. The Orthodox Church leadership has appointed Thomas Paul Ramban as the vicar of the Marthoma Cheriapally assuming that the church belongs to them as per the Supreme Court verdict, but the members of the church have raised tough resistance blocking the entry of Thomas Paul Ramban. Father Jose Parathuvayalil, the present vicar of the church, says that Paul Ramban has no right to come to this church. “This parish has thousands of families, but the Ramban has come all alone. He couldn’t mobilise even ten members. How can he be the vicar of this church?” asks Father Jose.

The fight between the two factions took a new turn with the Supreme Court ordering on July 3 this year that the Jacobite Syrian Church cannot be a part of the Malankara group anymore. They will have to become an independent entity or disband the church and join the Orthodox Church.

The rift in the church started way back in 1599, when the Synod of the then church had its meeting in Udayamperoor in Ernakulam district which is known as the Udayamperoor Synod in the annuls of the Christian church history in Kerala. The synod, a high level meeting of the bishops, laid down rules and regulations for the Saint Thomas Christians of the Malabar Coast, that is, the state of Kerala and formally united them with the Catholic Church headed by the Pope in Rome. But the Orthodox Malankara Christians broke away from the Churches under the Pope and declared allegiance to the Patriarch of Antioch.

In 1910, the Malankara Orthodox Church split again into two factions, the JacobitChurchn Chuirch supporting the Patriarch of Antioch and the Kerala Malankara Orthodox Church propping up their own Bishop based out of Kottayam. It was the beginning of a big rift in between the two groups within the Malankara Christians, but both the factions reached a settlement in 1934, when the two groups came together electing a bishop Baselios Geevarghese Catholica in Kottayam.

The agreement, drafted by some leaders of the Orthodox faction, clearly says that the power of Church should rest with the Bishop in Kottayam but added that they will be in support of the Patriarch of Antioch. There was peace in the Church for some time, but in 1974, the Patriarch of Antioch anointed three bishops in Kerala which triggered another conflict. The two factions came alive again and started street fights in their strongholds capturing churches, which belonged to the unified church for centuries. The case reached the Supreme Court, which came out with a verdict in 1995 ruling that the agreement in 1995 will stand. It was a verdict in favour of the Orthodox faction and the Jacobites have never accepted this.

In 2002, the Jacobite faction gathered together in Puthen Cruz in Ernakulam district and named themselves Jacobite Syrian Christians. This unleashed a series of violence in several churches with the two factions fighting for supremacy in individual churches under the Orthodox Church headquartered at Devalokam in Kottayam and the Orthodox Church headquartered in Puthen Cruz. Several churches, including the famous Kolencherry church, were closed down for years. The matter reached the Supreme Court again which ruled that the 1934 agreement will prevail. The apex court made it clear that its verdict is applicable to all parishes and dioceses which simply means that the absolute power of the Church and all the parishes rests in the hands of the Bishops of the Orthodox faction, to the bitter worry of the Jacobite faction.

But the fact remains that there are several churches where the Jocobites are in majority. They say that they cannot part with their church as they are so much attached to them. And each church has a symmetry attached to it where their ancestors are buried, which of course add to the sentiments.

On December 10, the St Mary’s Jacobite Syrian Church in Piravam witnessed tense moments when the police reached there to implement the Supreme Court verdict. Some members of the parish went up to the top of the church, poured kerosene on themselves, raising suicide threats while hundreds blocked the entry of police. The police had to retreat. And now the conflict is in Marthoma Cheriapally in Kothamangalam. The tension is likely to spread to other churches as well. A new headache for the state government after the Sabarimala crisis.

Author is a freelance journalist based in Kerala. Views are personal.