The head of the Jacobite group of the Syrian Christians of Kerala (who follow their own Orthodox tradition, just as the Greeks and Russian have their own Orthodox churches), the Patriarch of Antioch, has arrived in Kerala. The Jacobite and Orthodox groups of Syrian Christians have been at loggerheads ever since the church split in 1912. The dispute is over the control of the vast assets owned by the church. Theologically speaking, the Jacobite and Orthodox branches are practically identical, except that the Jacobites regard the Patriarch of Antioch (which is today a small town in Turkey) as the head of their church, whereas the Orthodox group regards the Catholicos of the East (who is based in Kerala) as the head of their church. At the social level, the split is notional: though they go to separate churches, intermarriage between the two groups is common. However, numerous cases have been lodged in the courts, with each side claiming exclusive ownership of certain churches and cemeteries. These disputes sometimes spiral into violence, with one group trying to enter a disputed church forcibly or attempting to disrupt a service conducted by the other side in a church it regards as its own. Often, rituals in churches have to be conducted under police protection. Imagine police patrolling outside the church or even outside the classroom while children study the Bible in Sunday School inside. What kind of message are these kids getting? Various court judgments have been handed down, but these have only intensified the bitterness. Priests and bishops have hit the road protesting against court judgments and been beaten up by the police for their pains and hospitalized.
The story is told of a priest who approached my grandfather one day for a donation to build a church. My grandfather’s reply shocked the priest. He said: “I will not give you a donation to build a church, but will happily give you a donation to pull down a church. I’m a lawyer, and know that a new Syrian Christian church means at least one court case.”
The dispute began in 1910 and is about whether a foreign entity like the Patriarch of Antioch should have administrative control of the internal affairs of the Malankara (Syrian Christian) church of Kerala. The Jacobite group believes that as the spiritual head of the church, he should; the Orthodox group in effect deposed the Patriarch and elected their own indigenous spiritual head, the Catholicos of the East. (Disclaimer: This is the right place to admit that I’m hardly an authority on ecclesiastical matters; so take my history with a pinch of salt. Also, I am a nominal member of the Orthodox church.)
The Patriarch of Antioch on his current visit to Kerala has been making all the right noises about reconciliation between the two groups, but whether this will translate into anything concrete on the ground remains to be seen. I think it’s highly unlikely that the two groups will bury the hatchet. The photo above (taken on SA road) is one of dozens that line the roads of Cochin to welcome the Patriarch. They were sponsored by individuals, families, and companies owned by individuals who belong to the Jacobite church.