The Eastern Christian Churches by Ronald Roberson

The Thomas Christians

A Christian community known as “The Thomas Christians” has existed on the southwest coast of India since ancient times. This is attested to in documented sources dating back to the fourth century. The Thomas Christians claim with considerable credibility to have been founded by the Apostle Thomas, who had evangelized India following the death and resurrection of Christ. Located in what is now the state of Kerala, they were a distinct religious community fully integrated into Indian society. They were also in full communion with the Assyrian Church of the East, which in early centuries had regularly sent bishops to India to ordain deacons and priests. From at least the 8th century, the head of the Thomas Christian Church, which had considerable autonomy, was a Metropolitan of the Assyrian Church of the East who occupied the tenth place in the Assyrian hierarchy with the title, “Metropolitan and Gate of All India.” But because the Metropolitans generally did not speak the local language, real jurisdiction was placed in the hands of an Indian priest with the title “Archdeacon of All India.” He was effectively the civil and religious superior of the entire community until the arrival of the Portuguese in Kerala at the end of the 15th century.

Portuguese colonization was the beginning of a sad history of forced latinization that caused unrest and schisms among the Thomas Christians. Today their descendants, who number about 8,000,000, are divided into five oriental churches, including about 15,000 who still belong to the Assyrian Church of the East. For the others see the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

Another interesting feature of the Thomas Christians is the existence among them of a distinct ethnic community known as the “Southists,” or “Knanaya.” According to tradition, it began with a group of 72 Jewish Christian families who immigrated to India from Mesopotamia in the year 345 AD. There is historical evidence to support this claim. The descendants of these ancient immigrants, who do not intermarry with those outside the community and now number about 300,000, are divided into two ethnic dioceses in Kerala, one belonging to the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the other to the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate.

In the United States there are 12 Knanaya Syrian Orthodox parishes served by 15 priests. Rev. Fr. C.A. Thomas Chirathalackal of St. Joseph Knanaya Orthodox Church at 342 Belmont Avenue, West Babylon, New York 11704, is the administrator. In 2006 Bishop Mar Jacob Angadiath of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Chicago created a special region of his diocese for members of the Catholic Knanaya community in the United States. It now includes five foranes, 14 parishes, eight missions, and four convents, served by 16 priests. The Director of the Region is Rev. Fr. Thomas Mulavanal, 9405 Michael Ct., Morton Grove, Illinois 60053.

Last Modified: 16 November 2020

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