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Ancient Christians, Modern Mission

Southists in Kerala, India, merge past and present.

It is Good Friday in Kottayam, a city in the southern Indian state of Kerala. A family of Christians gathers to bless a plate of fresh, unleavened rice bread. The head of the household reads from a prayer book written in Malayalam, the vernacular of Kerala. On the cover the Hebrew word for Passover is embossed in gold. By tradition, the youngest member of the family asks the eldest the significance of unleavened bread. He is told how their ancestors, the Jews, fled Egypt in haste and how they had only enough time to prepare unleavened bread.

Before sharing their Passover bread, these Christians greet each other, exclaiming, “Happy Pessaha!”

This Indian Christian family traces its origins to those Jewish Christians who immigrated to India from Mesopotamia in the fourth century. Rooted in the past by cherished traditions, they belong to a dynamic community – the Southists, or Knanaya – a group vital to the mosaic of modern India.

Among the Christians of southern India, explains Father Jacob Kollaparambil, a Southist scholar and Vicar General of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Kottayam, there are two ethnically distinct communities, the Northists and the Southists:

“The Northists are the descendants of those families who were first evangelized by the Apostle Thomas as well as those who have since embraced Christianity. The Southists trace their origins to 72 Mesopotamian Christian families who settled in Cranganore in 345 A.D.”

Southists now number about 200,000 people, a minority within the whole Thomas Christian community of some 4.5 million people (Thomas Christians describe the descendants of those Christians – now members of several Eastern churches – evangelized by Thomas the Apostle). A Semitic people who have maintained their identity by avoiding intermarriage, the Southists are nevertheless divided into two distinct ecclesial jurisdictions. About two-thirds belong to the Eparchy of Kottayam, a diocese of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. The remaining third are in communion with the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, who established a Southist eparchy in Chingavanam in 1910.

In 1990, Father Jacob and Mar Kuriakose Kunnacherry, Bishop of Kottayam, traveled to Iraq to learn more about their ancestors.

“About 24 miles south of Baghdad, between the ancient Persian capitals of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, was situated the Catholicosate [or patriarchal seat] of the Church of the East, an ancient church that developed from the Jewish-Christian community founded by the Apostle Thomas,” reports Father Jacob.

This church (historically referred to as the Nestorian Church), while a minority in Mesopotamia, nevertheless flourished; at its height in the 14th century, the church maintained eparchies in China, India, Mongolia and Tibet.

In the fourth century, the priest continues, the Catholicos of the East, hearing of the languishing state of the church in southern India, asked a merchant named Thomas Knaniya to organize a group of Christians, led by a bishop, Mar Joseph of Uraha, and a handful of priests and deacons, to bolster the community.

“On reaching the Malabar coast Thomas obtained from the authorities land at Cranganore as well as highly esteemed privileges. The influx of immigrants with a bishop and clergy reinvigorated the Indian Church, enabling it to prosper as a privileged community.

“The immigrants, following their Judeo-Christian traditions, remained as an endogamous [closed caste or group] community.”

Though the guardian of this proud group, Mar Kuriakose is a humble man who prefers to live in a woodland retreat near a home for the elderly rather than the large bishop’s house in Kottayam.

“We are a dynamic community; we have more than 200 priests working in North India, more than we have in Kerala,” the Bishop points out. “We also have priests establishing missions in North America, Africa and Europe.”

While the Southists remain endogamous, they are not self-serving. Under the guidance of Mar Kuriakose, who for more than 30 years has shepherded the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Kottayam, Syro-Malabar Southists have established a number of programs benefiting all castes and creeds. Though he plans to retire soon, Mar Kuriakose hopes to install a top-notch cancer treatment unit at the local Caritas hospital; he is trying desperately to raise the $500,000 needed for the equipment. A 450-bed hospital built in the 1960’s, Caritas Hospital is one of several administered by the Southists. Renowned for its departments of cardiology and surgery, the hospital, while offering services a cut above government clinics, offers fees that are more reasonable than those of most private hospitals. Caritas uses a sliding scale – even the poorest patients can therefore afford treatment.

“Treatment will never be denied to anyone because of the lack of money,” insists the hospital’s director, Father Simon Pazhukayil.

“Many of the poor,” he adds, “come in for snakebite treatment at the hospital’s effective anti-venom unit. Caritas Hospital also has a school of nursing and a college of pharmacology.”

Nearby, the Southists operate the 20-bed Ayurvedic Hospital, which specializes in alternative Indian medicine. Therapeutic massage is especially effective for patients with arthritis, allergies and skin disease.

St. Joseph’s Home for Cancer Patients is an institution that runs on the love and devotion of a handful of Sisters of St. Joseph. A maximum of 15 terminally ill patients from all creeds are cared for until their death. Due to a cultural stigma attached to all deformities, many cancer patients are rejected by their families and sent to the home. They are often denied proper burial or cremation in their communities; as a result, the sisters have created an ecumenical cemetery on their premises. Other institutions administered by the sisters care for the physically and mentally handicapped, the aged and orphaned children.

The school system run by the Eparchy of Kottayam provides some of the best schooling in India. This system includes four colleges, 30 high schools, 73 primary schools and 80 nurseries. The Eparchy also maintains a seminary for young men pursuing priesthood. At the Pastoral Center, the Social Services Department offers a variety of services to the poor. “The emphasis is not on charity, but on empowering the people for their own sustainable development,” asserts Father Michael Vettickatt, the department’s dynamic director. A network of regional coordinators and local facilitators leads a variety of groups, created according to need. Most groups are for women. Kumaralloor village has 12 groups; each is made up of more than 20 women. They come from all religious backgrounds – Christian, Muslim and Hindu. Pushpa Thomas, 38, is the leader of a group that meets twice monthly in her tiny house beside a railway track.

“We enjoy the interaction that we get from the group,” she explains. “We want freedom in the house, to be able to leave the house if we need to, not to be dominated by our husbands!”

At the core of the women’s group is a savings club enabling women to withdraw small loans to start micro-enterprises. Initially, Pushpa took out a 1,000-rupee (about $21) loan to sell provisions door to door. She finds this work both interesting and lucrative. The group hopes to start other businesses, such as sewing and soap-making, as well as a small bakery. Thresiamma Philip, a local facilitator, notes, “The women are happier because of their new friendships. All religious groups come together, share their sorrows and joys and help each other, regardless of background.”

Yet, background matters when a Southist child intends to marry. More often than not, marriages are arranged within the Southist community. Marriages between Syro-Malabar Catholic and Syrian Orthodox Southists are not uncommon, as relations between the two ecclesial communities are quite warm:

“There is much love and cooperation between the two churches,” Mar Kuriakose states. “We simply worship in separate buildings.

“With marriage,” the Bishop continues, “as in the Jewish tradition, very solemn yet separate preparations are made for bride and groom. Hymns and songs, which originated in Mesopotamia, are sung.

“There is a Jewish-Christian element to the liturgy,” he concludes.

Rooted in tradition, the Southists of Kerala are nevertheless thoroughly modern. Determined to maintain their ancient rites, customs and privileges, Kerala’s Southists are also determined to build a progressive, inclusive India.

Sean Sprague is a frequent contributor to CNEWA WORLD.

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