On Wednesday, the Supreme Court intervened for the fourth time in a century-old dispute between the Orthodox and Jacobite factions of Kerala’s Malankara Church. It dismissed petitions filed by the Jacobites seeking a review of the court’s July 3 verdict giving the Orthodox group control over more than 1,100 parishes and their churches. (A parish is an administrative district headed by a parish priest). Till then, both factions had been running the day-to-day affairs of the churches while fighting for ownership.

The Jacobites claim the court’s verdict deprives 1.2 million devotees of a place of worship, and plan to appeal against it. “Where will we go and pray?” asked Bishop Joseph Mar Gregorios, synod secretary of the Jacobite Church. “This is severe injustice. We have no option but to go for further legal remedies. So we will approach the constitutional bench soon.”

The Supreme Court’s earlier verdicts, in 1958 and 1995, had also gone in favour of the Orthodox faction, which counts 2.5 million members.

The Jacobite-Orthodox row dates back to 1912 and has led to violence and police action on several occassions. Both sides have organised protests and hartals, blocked roads and even stopped funerals. More than 300 churches have been closed as a result of litigation and violence. Government-backed attempts to resolve the row have all failed.

St Peter's Church in Kolenchery, Ernakulam district, witnessed many clashes between Orthodox and Jacobite factions.

Early history

The Malankara Church was formed in India in the 17th century in the aftermath of two historical events, the Synod of Diamper and the Coonan Cross Oath.

The 1599 Synod of Diamper, held in Udayamperoor in present day Eranakulam district, asked the laity to follow Latin Catholic rites. According to Dr Cyriac Thomas, former vice-chancellor of the Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, the synod or council issued the decree at the insistence of Portuguese missionaries. “The missionaries from Portugal were hard-core Catholics,” said Thomas, who was part of a government initiative to find a solution to the dispute in 1996.

He added, “They were intolerant towards local religious practices and found the liturgy of Christians in Kerala pagan. It caused resentment in the local community, which eventually resulted in the Coonan Cross Oath of 1653.”

People who opposed the synod decree took an oath that they would not submit to Portuguese dominance. They also decided to resist the move to forcefully draw them to Catholicism of Latin rite. This group soon partnered with the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch. This heralded the formation of the Malankara Church.

The word Malankara is derived from the island of Maliankara, where Saint Thomas the Apostle first landed in India. Mar Thoma, as Thomas came to be known here, was ordained the first head or metropolitan of the Malankara Church. The patriarch of Antioch was the spiritual head of the Malankara Church, but he had no control over the parish churches and properties.

The split

In 1912, the Malankara Church split into the Malankara Orthodox Church and the Jacobite Syrian Church on the question of the supreme head. The discontent had set in three years ago with the patriarch at that time excommunicating the metropolitan for refusing to acknowledge his authority. In 1912, the metropolitan got a rival patriarch to invalidate his excommunication and appoint him head of the Church.

The Malankara Orthodox Church considers the Malankara metropolitan its head while the Jacobite Syrian Church recognises the patriarch of Antioch as its spiritual head. Both factions trace their origin to Saint Thomas. They also share the same liturgy (rites of worship) and administrative structure, and both their heads hold the title of Catholicos.

The Very Reverend Dr Jacob Mannaraprayil of the Orthodox faction said there was no difference between the factions on religious practices.

Bobby Thomas, author of Christianikal: Christumathathinoru Kaipusthakam (Christians: A handbook for Christian religion), believes power and money caused the vertical split in the Church. “The Orthodox faction was afraid of the patriarch of Antioch’s influence,” he said.

But Cyriac Thomas said the bone of contention was autonomy, pointing out, “The Orthodox Church maintained it was an Indian church and the patriarch of Antioch had no claim on temporal assets.”

Inside St Peter's Church. The church has been closed several times for many years because of the factional feud.

The 1934 Constitution

In its verdicts in 1958, 1995 and earlier this year, the Supreme Court observed that the 1934 constitution of the Malankara Church was appropriate for the management of the parish churches.

The constitution was passed by the Malankara Association, a forum of elected representatives of priests and laity from all the parishes. It states that the Malankara metropolitan is the head of the Church and the patriarch of Antioch has no claim on its temporal assets.

According to Mannaraprayil of the Orthodox faction, it is a democratically drafted constitution. “Notices were sent to all parish churches well in advance, to all members of the Malankara Association,” he said. “The meeting was held at MD Seminary in Kottayam. We did not leave out a single member. That might be the reason for the Supreme Court to cite the 1934 constitution in all three verdicts. It is the Magna Carta of the Malankara Church.”

He added that the rival group also organised a meeting in Karingachira in Ernakulam at the same time.

However, Bishop Joseph Mar Gregorios of the Jacobite Church said the constitution was framed without consulting the Jacobites. “We were not allowed to enter the Association meeting,” he said.

A long and bitter feud

Bobby Thomas said it would take time to heal these old wounds. “Priest and laity fought on the streets to claim churches,” he said. “Devotees from both factions suffered injuries in police laticharge. They were denied entry into parish[es]. It is not easy to forget these harsh experiences.”

Mannaraprayil, too, does not expect the dispute to end any time soon. “Both churches are functioning as parallel entities,” he said. “It is not easy to end their activities all of a sudden.”

While a settlement seems highly unlikely at the moment, many within the Church community believe co-existence is the only solution.

Mannaraprayil recounted that the court had said in no uncertain terms that it was not possible to have parallel churches. “I hope better sense prevails and both factions come together and function as a joint entity,” he said.

Cyriac Thomas said the Jacobites would find it difficult to remain independent as “they don’t have the finances to remain alone”.

The Jacobite faction, while threatening to continue their legal battle, is not averse to a settlement. “We are ready for peaceful co-existence,” said Gregorios. But the bishop quickly added a rider: “The Orthodox faction should accept the authority of the patriarch of Antioch.”

Words that make it all too clear that the century-old dispute still has a ways to go.

A devotee in front of St Peter's Church in Kolenchery.

All photographs by TA Ameerudheen.