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History of Church Cases at a Glance
Litigation Among the Members of Syrian Christians in Malankara - An Overview

by Chev. P.J Philip

Note from P.J. Philip, Advocate, Kochi (Oct 29, 2010)

I feel that it will be interesting to research and find out the Core of the dispute between the Catholicos Faction and MJSOC. I have prepared a document which I would like to share with you.


The unfortunate difference of opinion between the two groups of members among the Syrian Christians in Malankara has got both ecclesiastical and temporal side.

The seed for the ecclesiastical aspect for the difference of opinion is manifest in what is commonly referred to as Koonan Cross Oath in the year 1654. By the 16th Century, Christianity had gained a fairly substantial foothold in the Malankara Church, an area which was then comprised in State of Kerala. The dominant faith was of Syrian Orthodox Church in the apostolic throne of St. Peter of Antioch. His Holiness the Patriarch of Antioch and All the east situated on the throne of Antioch was the spiritual head of the church.

Portuguese Interference in 16th century

In and around 16th century, the Portuguese gained considerable political power in the West Coast of India and they were Roman Catholics. They compelled the local Syrian Christians of Malankara to accept the Roman faith and they succeeded to a certain extent.

In those days, the Malankara Church was governed by a Metropolitan sent by the Patriarch of Antioch. At the same time in the local level, the church affairs are governed by Malabar Yogam (i.e. assembly). There was also an indigenous head of church of Malabar, commonly referred to as the Arch Deacon. The Arch Deacon is the highest priestly rank and is the head of all the clerics and is responsible for the whole worship of the church and represents the Will of the bishop in his absence. The indigenous Arch Deacon of Malankara Church serves the needs of the ecclesiastical organization of the Church and the continuance governance of the people of the church was secured by the said indigenous Arch Deacon serving as head of the priest in Malabar and representing the will of the Bishop.

Role of the Arch Deacon

From the local point of view, the Arch Deacon was not only most important priest of the community but he was also "the prince and head of the Christians of St. Thomas" and had such titles as "Arch Deacon and Gate of All India, Governor of India". The origin and the meaning of the term "Gate" is mysterious and it is believed that it is a Christological title: "I am the Gate of the sheep" (Jn 10:7).

The office of the Archdeacon of India seems to have been hereditary. It was the privilege of the Pakalomattam family, at least from the sixteenth century onwards. Indeed, we know about a number of Pakalomattam Archdeacons, beginning with 1502, when Metropolitan John of India appointed George Pakalomattam as Arch Deacon. The name of the family varies, and the family seems to be identical with the Parambil family, translated into Portuguese as De Campo. The Archdeacon had all the attributes of a secular leader and was normally escorted by a number, sometimes several thousands, of soldiers.

It is important to note that while there could be several bishops appointed for the Malabar Diocese, there was always only one Archdeacon, a custom contrary to the canons of the Church of the East. This situation is best explained by the fact that from the point of view of the East Syrian Church structure, the Archdeacon was an ecclesiastical function, but from that of the St Thomas Christian community, it was also a socio-political, princely function, representing the unity of the Christian nation, or caste of India.

Oppression of Alexis de Menezes, Archbishop of Goa

When the Portuguese arrived on the Malabar Coast, the Christian communities that they found there had had longstanding traditional links with the East Christians at Antioch and in Mesopotamia.

Alexis de Menezes, Archbishop of Goa from 1595 until his death in 1617, together with his Jesuit advisers, decided to bring the Kerala Christians to obedience, an obedience that they conceived as complete conformity to the Roman or 'Latin' customs. This meant subjecting them to the Latin Archbishopric of Goa under the Pope of Rome. The most important stage of their activity was the famous Synod of Diamper (Udayamperoor) in 1599, when the local Christians' customs were officially anathematized as heretical and their manuscripts were condemned to be either corrected or burnt.

Koonan Kurishu Satyam (Bent Cross Oath) in Mattancherry, Cochin, in 1653

The oppressive rule of the Portuguese provoked a violent reaction on the part of the indigenous Christian community in Kerala. This resulted in the Koonan Kurishu Satyam (Bent Cross Oath) in Mattancherry, Cochin, in 1653, when the rebels, headed by their Archdeacon, made a vow not to accept any allegiance unless to a Syrian Church. In the same year Archdeacon Thomas was ordained, by the laying on of hands of twelve priests, as the first indigenous Metropolitan of Kerala under the name Mar Thoma I. Later, in 1665, on the arrival of Mor Gregarious Abd al-Jalil, a bishop sent by the Antiochian Syrian Orthodox Patriarch, the Syrian Christians in Malankara were able to re unite and continue in their original faith under the apostolic succession from the throne of St. Peter at Antioch.

Events Leading to the Ordination of Mar Thoma in 1653

During the entire period, beginning with the intervention of Archbishop Menezes of Goa in the affairs of the Church of Malabar in 1598 up to the consecration of Archdeacon Thomas as Mar Thoma I in 1653, events were dominated by a constant tension between the Latin Archbishops designated by the Portuguese and the Archdeacons leading the St. Thomas Christian community. The strife between the Portuguese missionaries and the indigenous Christians and their Iraqi prelates was not of a truly doctrinal, but of an ecclesiological and jurisdictional character. However, something else was also involved: the identity of the St. Thomas Christians. In their striving to preserve their identity, the most important role was given to Archdeacon. Archbishop Alexis de Menezes, who was both an ambitious and indeed violent person and a very able Church politician, succeeded in bringing the Archdeacon to obedience to a certain extent.

The difference of opinion and tension between the Latin Archbishops and the Archdeacons - first George of the Cross and then his nephew, Thomas Parambil (de Campo) - continued and resulted in several revolts of the latter against the former, whenever the Archbishop tried to curtail the traditional rights of the Archdeacon. In this way George of the Cross (the then Arch Deacon) revolted against Francisco Roz, Archbishop of Angamali (1601-1624), first in 1609, when the latter excommunicated him, and also in 1618. Although George had more friendly relations with Roz's successor, Stephen Britto (1624-1641), he also revolted against the latter in 1632. The rule of the next Archbishop, Francis Garcia (1641-1659), was again dominated by constant tension between him and the Archdeacon, Thomas Parambil, until the latter apparently decided definitively to break away from Roman jurisdiction. In 1648-1649 he sent a number of letters to several Oriental Patriarchs including Syrian Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch requesting them to send bishops to Malabar.

As a response to these letters, a certain Mar A'tallah, Patriarch of Antioch, arrived in India. But the Portuguese detained him in Mylapore and he was drowned in the sea. The detention of the Patriarch so enraged the Archdeacon and his party that they revolted against the Portuguese. On January 3, 1653, a mass of people gathered in Mattancherry in Cochin, and swore an oath not to obey the Portuguese, but only the Archdeacon, who on May 22 of the same year was ordained bishop, under the name Mar Thoma, by twelve priests laying their hands on him. It is rather clear that this secession cannot be explained by its immediate pretext, but was the fulfillment of a long-nurtured wish of the Archdeacon, who could not accept his subjugation, and of the local Christians, who wanted to preserve their traditions and autonomy.

CMS Missionaries and Deposit of 3000 Star Pagodas

The Patriarch of Antioch was initially exercising ecclesiastical powers over the Syrian Christians of Malankara commonly referred to as Malankara Syrian Christian Church. In the 19th century British power exercised their influence in Southern India they pressurized the Malankara Syrian Christian community to embrace Protestant faith. They too succeeded in some measure. Several attempts were made by CMS machinery to perused Jacobite Syrian Christians to join with the CMS machinery. However, this did not succeed due to opposition from Syrian Christian and persons having allegiance to Patriarch of Antioch. This resulted in the appointment of arbitrators to decide upon the dispute between CMS machinery ad Syrian Christians regarding the right to ownership of properties of the church and the beneficial interest arising out of charitable deposit of 3000 Star Pagodas.

In the year 1808 a trust for charitable purpose was created by the then Metropolitan of Malankara by name Mar Thoma VI (Dionysius Great) by investing 3000 Star Pagodas equivalent to Rs. 10,500 in the British Treasury at 8% interest per annum.

Cochin Award of 1840 - Vattpanam Case

The right to ownership of properties of the church and the beneficial interest arising out of charitable deposit of 3000 Star Pagodas was settled by Cochin Award of 1840. The Award divided the properties between the two and the right to receive the interest on 3000 Star Pagodas was given to the Malankara Syrian Christian Church. Properties so allotted to the Malankara Syrian Christian Church, as per the award, were to be administered by the trustees - comprising of a Metropolitan trustee, priest trustee and lay trustee - to be elected by the Syrian Christian Community from among themselves.

The effect of the Cochin Award was that the dispute between Church Mission Society and Syrian Christian Church in Malankara came to an end. However between 1808 and 1840 vast assets have been acquired with the trust created by the Dynasius the Great and these were controlled and administered by the person who was the head of the Church along with two other co trustees and layman. The interest referred to above popularly known as Vattipanam was paid till 1877 AD to the Metropolitan Mar Mathews Dionysius and two persons under him who were elected as co trustees.

After the death of Mathews Dionysius it was paid to his successor Mar Thoma Dionysius till 1844 AD when dispute arose between the members of the community which lead to the Judgement commonly referred to as Travancore Royal Court Judgement. In the said judgment claims made by Mar Joseph Dionysius and his co trustees were upheld in as much as that they were recognized by the spiritual head of the church His Holiness the Patriarch of Antioch and All The East. Thereafter the interest continued to be drawn till the year 1908 A.D. by said Mar Joseph Dionysius and his co trustees - one Korah Malpan and Ulahannan - and after the death of Korah Ulahannan, his son C. J Kurian was elected to the office as co trustees. In the year 1909 AD Mar Joseph Dionysius died and he was succeeded by Mar Gheevarghese Dionysius.

Dispute Between Mar Gheevarghese Dionysius and His Co-Trustees

After Mar Gheevarghese Dionysius became metropolitan, misunderstandings cropped up between him and his co trustees (Kurian Malpan and Korah Ulahannan) and they had therefore declined to join him in receiving the interest which for that reason continued to accumulate from the year 1908 AD.

The core of the dispute between two factions of the Syrian Christian community really started in this difference of opinion regarding the custody of the common trust properties between the Mar Gheevarghese Dionysius Metropolitan of one side and his co trustees Korah Malpan and Kurian on the other side.

Editor's Note: The document was edited, reformatted and subtitles added for ease of reading.

See Also:

An Analysis of the Present Legal Scenario in Church - 2007

Full Text of Recent High Court Judgement on Mediation

The Saint Thomas Christians in India from 52 to 1687 AD

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