The Eastern Christian Churches by Ronald Roberson

The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church

In the mid-17th century, most of the Thomas Christians in India (see The Thomas Christians and the The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church) had become increasingly upset with the high-handed methods of the Portuguese and the increasing latinization of their church. This led thousands of faithful to gather at the Coonan Cross in Mattancherry on January 3, 1653, and to take an oath to submit no longer to the authority of Archbishop Francis Garcia of Crangannore or his Portuguese Jesuit associates. This oath would later become a rallying point for those who wished to break entirely with the Catholic Church. The leader of the dissidents attempted to reestablish communion with the Assyrian Church of the East, but was unable to do so. Then in 1665, the Syrian Patriarch agreed to send a bishop to head the community on the condition that its leader and his followers accept Syrian christology and follow the West Syrian rite. This group was eventually administered as an autonomous church within the Syrian Patriarchate.

However, in 1912 there was a split in the community when one part declared itself an autocephalous church and announced the re-establishment of the ancient Catholicosate of the East in India. This was not accepted by those, now known as “Jacobites,” who remained loyal to the Syrian Patriarch. The two sides were reconciled in 1958 when the Indian Supreme Court declared that only the autocephalous Catholicos and bishops in communion with him had legal standing. But in 1975 the Syrian Patriarch excommunicated and deposed the Catholicos and appointed a rival. As a result, the community split yet again and there were sometimes violent confrontations between the two groups, mostly over the ownership of church property.

In June 1995 the Supreme Court of India rendered a decision that (a) upheld the Constitution of the autocephalous church that had been adopted in 1934 and made it binding on both sides, (b) stated that there is only one Orthodox church in India, currently divided into two factions, and (c) recognized the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch as the spiritual head of the universal Syrian Church. It further affirmed that the autocephalous Catholicos has legal standing as the head of the entire church, and that he is custodian of its parishes and properties. In 2017 the Supreme Court of India reaffirmed the 1995 decision and, consistent with it, ordered the handing over of more contested Jacobite churches to the Orthodox side. By 2020, the two groups remained separate and antagonistic.

The precise size of these two communities is difficult to determine. But the autocephalous Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, also known as the Indian Orthodox Church, has reported 2,500,000 members in 30 dioceses, served by 32 bishops and over 1,700 priests. The Jacobite group had about 1,200,000 faithful.

There are two other churches in Kerala that originated in the Malankara Orthodox community. Due in part to the activity of Anglican missionaries, a reform movement grew up within the Malankara church in the late 19th century. Those who adhered to the movement eventually formed The Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church, which to a great extent conserves Malankara liturgical practice and ethos. This church, whose episcopal succession derives from the Syrian Orthodox Church, tends to accept reformed theology and has been in communion with the Anglican Provinces since 1974. Also known simply as the Mar Thoma Church, it now has about 1,000,000 members, served by 11 bishops and 1,176 priests. This includes a diocese of North America and Europe based at 2320 South Merrick Avenue in Merrick, New York, with 71 parishes.

In the late 18th century, a Syrian prelate from Jerusalem ordained a local monk as bishop, but he was not accepted by the Malankara Metropolitan. This bishop then fled to the north and established his own group of followers at the village of Thozhiyur. Approximately 30,000 faithful make up this church today, which is called The Malabar Independent Syrian Church, or more simply as the Thozhiyur Church. It has 13 congregations and six chapels. While preserving its Malankara heritage, this group has strong links with the Mar Thoma Church and increasingly with the Anglican Communion.

The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church administers the Orthodox Theological Seminary at Kottayam, which was founded in 1815 and now has about 140 students. New facilities have been built, including the Sophia Centre for the theological training of lay men and women, and a School for Liturgical Music affiliated with Kottayam’s Mahatma Gandhi University. The St. Thomas Orthodox Theological Seminary was opened in Bhilai in 1995 to train priests to serve parishes and missions in north India. It moved to Naghpur in July 1999. The church also operates 24 arts and sciences colleges, three engineering colleges, 240 schools, 30 hospitals, 35 orphanages, and several mission centers. There are also 30 monasteries or “ashrams” in the Malankara Church with about 250 monks altogether, and 15 convents where a total of 200 nuns live a life dedicated to service and worship.

His Grace Zachariah Mar Nicholovos, the Metropolitan of the Northeast American Diocese, has his offices at the Indian Orthodox Church Center, 2158 Route 106, Muttontown, NY 11791. A new Diocese of Southwest America was officially inaugurated on June 13, 2009. It is under the pastoral care of His Grace Metropolitan Zacharias Mar Aprem (3101 Hopkins Road, Beasley, Texas 77417). The Northeast diocese has 47 parishes in the US and three in Canada; the Southwest Diocese has 60 parishes.

The Malankara Orthodox Church has a single diocese for the United Kingdom, Europe and Africa headed by His Grace Metropolitan Mathews Mar Thimothios. It has 41 parishes in ten countries (Malankara House, 35 Hennman Close, Swindon, SN254ZW, UK).

There are also 12 Malankara Orthodox parishes in Australia and three in New Zealand. They come under the jurisdiction of the Chennai Diocese in India, headed by His Grace Yuhanon Mar Diascoros. The church also has a number of parishes in the Persian Gulf area because of the large number of guest workers from India in the region.

Location: India, small diaspora
Head: Baselius Mar Thoma Paulose II (born 1946, enthroned 2010)
Title: Catholicos of the East and Malankara Metropolitan
Residence: Kottayam, Kerala State, India
Membership: 2,500,000

Last Modified: 30 December 2020

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