A legal battle between two factions of Christians in Kerala that lasted for over a century came to a close in 2017 when the Supreme Court delivered its final order. But the war for the control of thousands of parishes and their churches and properties spilled into the streets this week.

Tension prevailed in Ernakulam on Thursday when, armed with the Supreme Court order that had gone in their favour, the Orthodox faction of Christians decided to take over the Pivoram St Mary’s church from the Jacobite group.

But when a group of Orthodox Christians arrived at the church, they found the gates locked, with a strong contingent of the Jacobite group holding a sit-in and vowing not to allow the other group to enter.

With the Kerala High Court having set the deadline for the Supreme Court orders to be implemented as noon on Thursday, the police and the district administration were anxious. The police decided to break open the gate to let the Orthodox faction in.

Given the economic might and the decisive numbers that both the factions command, Kerala’s politicians are treading with caution. Even as the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) moved to implement the court;s orders, it also attempted to play the mediator.

Faith and fight

The Malankara Church, which was formed in Kerala in the 17th century, split into two factions in 1912 – the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and the Jacobite Syrian Church. The split was the result of a fight over the leadership of the Malankara Church. While the Malankara Orthodox Church considers the Malankara metropolitan its head, the Jacobite Syrian Church holds the patriarch of Antioch as its spiritual head. Both factions trace their origin to Saint Thomas, an apostle of Jesus who, according to tradition came to India after Christ’s death.

In 1934, the Malankaran Association adopted a constitution to guide the management of the parishes. Consisting of priests and lay members from all parishes, the constitution made it clear that the Malankara metropolitan was the head of the church and that the patriarch of Antioch had no claim over it. This began the legal feud that saw the Supreme Court intervene on three different occasions: in 1958, 1995 and 2017.

In the 2017 ruling, the Supreme Court stated that the control of over 1,100 parishes should go to the Malankara Orthodox faction.

State reluctance

Despite the categorical ruling, the Kerala government was caught in bind as it tried to balance the interests of the two factions.

A CPI (M) MLA said on condition of anonymity that both the factions have great influence in business and politics. “Many of the big business houses in Kerala belong to members of these groups,” added the leader, who hails from a south Kerala district.

Once the 2017 verdict was issued, officials consistently claimed that efforts were underway to get the two factions to reach an agreement. However, these efforts failed.

According to the legislator, the two factions had been sharing time and space in the churches for decades. The right to conduct rituals changed hands in cycles even as the litigation for control of the parishes was proceeding in the Supreme Court.

However, having sensed that the state government was unwilling to act against the Jacobite group, the Malankara Orthodox faction moved the Supreme Court yet again this year, seeking orders for its 2017 verdict to be implemented.

This led to scathing comments by a bench led by Justice Arun Mishra, who chided the Kerala High Court for passing orders contradicting its 2017 judgement. “Kerala is an Indian territory and is bound by our orders,” the judge said. In the meantime, the court also threatened to throw the chief secretary of Kerala into jail if the administration failed to implement its orders.

The CPI (M) leader said the government was sympathetic to the situation of the Jacobites. “Building a church is not easy,” he said. “What will they do if they are thrown out of all churches. Where will they pray?”

In the meantime, the opposition Congress has tried to remain equidistant from both the factions. A former state minister said a majority of both factions vote the Congress. “There are close to 30 lakh votes between them in Kerala,” the leader added.

The party’s position has been largely confined to persuading the state government to intervene. But the party is aware of how difficult it would be to mediate between the groups. “Our former chief minister [Oomen Chandy] is an Malankara Orthodox,” the leader said. “But even he couldn’t do anything.” In fact, this led to some of the priests boycotting Chandy, claiming that he had failed his own community.

The confrontation at St Mary’s church in Pivoram is clearly not the end of the feud. On Thursday evening, a group of at least 1000 Orthodox Malankara Christians took a rally to the Jacobite headquarters in Kottayam, an unprecedented confrontation. Many observers feel that as strong as the question of faith are the properties that the parishes possess. This is what makes the communities powerful.

“For a few months, the police will have to maintain peace every Sunday during the mass,” said the Congress leader.