On Tuesday, the Supreme Court pulled up the Kerala Chief Secretary over the state government’s failure to implement its order of July 3, 2017, on a dispute over the ownership of churches and their properties between Orthodox and Jacobite factions of Malankara Christian Church in Kerala.
The 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% of the Kerala’s Christian population.
The Malankara Church is a prominent non-Catholic Christian community. The disputing factions, Jacobite and Orthodox Syrian, constitute 15.9% of the Christian population.
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.
The court ruling
In a dispute running for decades, 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.
The state government failed to implement the court order, and the Orthodox Church then approached the Kerala High Court seeking a direction to do so. The government made some attempts, which could not move forward because of resistance by members of the Jacobite Church. On one occasion, the government told the court that if police intervened, there may be bloodshed, loss of life by self-immolation, suicide, or breakdown of law and order. The government also tried an out-of-court settlement, but neither of the two factions budged from its stand.
Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church approached the High Court seeking police protection for its members at two churches that are controlled by the rival group. As the High Court declined to give an order for permanent police protection, the Orthodox group moved the Supreme Court seeking a direction to the state to implement its order of 2017. It was on this petition that the Supreme Court has now pulled up the state government.
On the ground
Of the 1,064 churches whose ownership is under dispute, some 15 have been remained closed without worship for several years. A few unattended 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.
The head of the Orthodox Church is Baselios Mar Thoma Paulose II, with his office in Kottayam. The Jacobite Church is a part of the worldwide Syrian Orthodox Church, with the Patriarch of Antioch as its supreme head. In Kerala, the Jacobite Church has Mor Baselios Thomas I as its chief.