Early on Monday morning, the Kerala government took control of Marthoman Jacobite Syrian Cathedral Church at Mulanthuruthy in Ernakulam district, which has been in the focus of a dispute between Jacobite and Orthodox factions of the Malankara Church, a prominent non-Catholic Christian community.
Take over triggered by SC verdict
The takeover has brought to the forefront a decade-long dispute between Jacobite and Orthodox factions of Malankara Church. The Church at Mulanthuruthy, built in AD 1200, has been managed by Jacobite faction, but as per a Supreme Court verdict of July3, 2017, its ownership should go to the rival Orthodox Church. Read this story in Malayalam
The Supreme Court had upheld the validity of the 1934 constitution of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church to govern the parishes under the Church. Although the court verdict came on dispute over the ownership of two churches, it impacted over 1000-odd churches. The court verdict had given a clear upper hand for the Orthodox faction, which has been governed by the constitution of 1934.
Since the SC verdict, several churches under dispute have already been handed over to the Orthodox group despite stiff resistance from the bishops and laymen from the Jacobite Church. As the government delayed implementing the SC order due to political compulsions, the Orthodox Church moved various courts against the non-compliance of the order of the apex court.
Established in AD 1200, the Marthoman Jacobite Syrian Cathedral Church at Mulanthuruthy is one of the ancient Churches in Kerala. The church is a fine example of Gothic architecture. The carvings, sculptures, symbolic icons and wall paintings, are a blend of Indian, West-Asian and European architecture. Most of the parishioners belong to the Jacobite faction.
Why a takeover now
In the case of the church at Mulanthuruthy, the Orthodox faction had moved a contempt of court petition, telling the Kerala High Court that their laity have been denied access to the church. The government cited the Covid-19 scenario and the monsoon havoc in the district as reasons not to take over the church as an action would demand mobilisation of force, now burdened by lockdown duties. After the single bench favoured the government stand, the Orthodox group moved a larger bench.
Rejecting the government contention, the division bench on August 12 issued an ultimatum to the Ernakulam District Collector that the church should be taken over within five days and submit a compliance report to the court. Hence, the takeover of the church in the early morning of Monday, when only a few hours have been left for executing the high court directive.
The district officials have to deploy police to remove the protesting bishops, priests and faithful of the Jacobite Church, who have been camping at the church premises since Sunday to resist the takeover. The church was locked from inside by the Jacobites, but police broke open the gates and evicted the protesting people.
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The split in Malankara Church
The Malankara Church first split in 1912, into the Jacobite and Orthodox groups. The two Churches reunified in 1959, but the truce lasted only until 1972-73. Since then, the two factions have been engaged in battle over ownership of churches and their wealth. Attempts to settle ownership disputes out-of-court have often failed. Faction members have often clashed on the streets too, and both sides have taken custody of several churches depending on which one has local muscle power.
Court ruling of 2017
The dispute has been running for decades in various courts. The Supreme Court had heard several petitions. The ruling of 2017 came on a petition moved by the Orthodox Church, which demanded that all churches under the Malankara Church be governed as per the Church Constitution of 1934. Under this, they claimed their right over the management of St Mary’s Church, Piravom. In 2017, the Supreme Court upheld the demand of the Orthodox Church. As per that order, the ownership of St Mary’s Church at Piravom in Ernakulam district, which is currently held by the Jacobite Church, should be handed over to Orthodox Church, and so should the ownership of 1,064 other churches in dispute.
Last year, the Supreme Court pulled up the Kerala Chief Secretary over the state government’s failure to implement its order 2017, on a dispute over the ownership of churches and their properties between Orthodox and Jacobite factions of Malankara Christian Church in Kerala.
Of the 1,064 churches whose ownership is under dispute, some 15 have remained closed without worship for several years. A few abandoned churches have got dilapidated after both factions built their own separate places of worship. The battle for ownership is very intense in around 200 churches, where both factions are equally strong. The numerical strength of rival factions in each parish decides who controls the local church and its properties.
Kerala’s church groups
The Christian population of Kerala comprises Catholic, Jacobite Syrian, Orthodox Syrian, Mar Thoma, Church of South India, Dalit Christians and Pentecostal Churches/groups. The Catholics form 61 per cent of Kerala’s Christian population. The Malankara Church, a prominent non-Catholic Christian community, constitutes 15.9 per cent of the Christian population.
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