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The Indian Orthodox Church

Until the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived on the shores of southwest India at the close of the 15th century, India’s Christians flourished in a unified church. Referred to as Thomas Christians, they traced their faith to St. Thomas the Apostle, who evangelized the south of India after his arrival in the year 52.

Portuguese colonization of south India, which also included efforts to bind the Thomas Christians to the church of Rome, shattered their unity. Today, the spiritual sons and daughters of St. Thomas include some ten million believers divided among seven jurisdictions — Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. The Indian Orthodox Church is divided into two groups sharing the same Syriac rites and traditions. The largest, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, includes some 2.5 million members. Another 1.2 million Orthodox Indians belong to the Malankara Syriac Orthodox Church. Most live on the subcontinent. But recently, thousands of families have settled in North America, Oceania and the Persian Gulf.

St. Thomas. Scant archaeological evidence points to Thomas’s travels through India, but literary references regarding the apostle abound in the early church. One fourth–century Syriac text, the “Acts of Thomas,” describes his activity among India’s Jewish community, traders who lived in the lively ports of the southwestern “Spice Coast.”

The fathers of the church — notably Clement of Alexandria, Ephrem the Syrian, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome and Gregory of Tours — all wrote of the apostle’s works among India’s people. In his Ecclesiastical History, the early church historian Eusebius records that Pantaenus, the founder of the Catechetical School of Alexandria, traveled to south India, encountering Thomas’s disciples.

According to the “Ramban Song,” an ancient lyrical poem of Indian provenance, the apostle arrived on the shores of present–day Kerala and soon got to work. He preached the Gospel, received 32 Hindu Brahmin families into the Christian faith, founded seven churches and in 72 died a martyr’s death on the southeastern coast.

From generation to generation, south India’s Christians and Hindus kept alive the memory of this “holy man,” chronicling his deeds and the sites associated with his life and work. And while Thomas’s Brahmin converts lost their prominence in the highly stratified society of the time, they received privileges and honors from local Hindu rulers that remained unquestioned until European colonization of the subcontinent began in the 16th century.

Mesopotamian reinforcements. According to tradition, 72 Christian families left Mesopotamia for the southwestern Indian port of Cranganore in 345, where they joined the apostle’s spiritual sons and daughters. Led by Thomas Knaniya — a merchant who belonged to the Church of the East, a community in Mesopotamia also founded by St. Thomas — these families brought with them a bishop, Mar (a Syriac honorific for “Lord”) Joseph of Edessa, four priests and several deacons.

While Thomas Knaniya’s community prohibited intermarriage, thus forming a closed community, their priests strengthened relations between the Church of the East and India’s Thomas Christians. The catholicos–patriarch of the Church of the East — which adhered to the most ancient rites of the church, known as East Syriac — regularly dispatched bishops to India to ordain priests and deacons and regulate ecclesial life. Common commercial interests also deepened the relationship between the two.

In the eighth century, the Church of the East’s catholicos appointed a Mesopotamian cleric as “Metropolitan and Gate of All India.” Though exercising considerable authority within the church in India, he typically did not speak the language of the people. Consequently, real power resided with an “Archdeacon of All India,” a dynastic office for native Indian clergy.

For nearly 1,500 years, India’s Thomas Christians were fully integrated into south Indian society. While their traditions and liturgical practices reflected their East Syriac roots, other elements of the spirituality and culture of the Thomas Christians — such as their method of praying for the dead, avoidance rituals associated with the caste system and eating customs — revealed their Hindu cultural heritage.

European colonization. When the Portuguese arrived, they found a community who welcomed them as companions in the Christian faith. The heirs of St. Thomas affirmed fidelity to the bishops of Rome, but retained full communion with the Church of the East. Such dual loyalties, however, were not possible in a Europe eager to dominate the world’s stage. Europe’s age of exploration coincided with the Protestant Reformation, the Counter Reformation and the rise of the European nation–state.

India’s Thomas Christians were unaware of these movements. Nor did they know that, in a rapidly shrinking world, fidelity to Peter and his heirs — despite the exhortations of the popes to the contrary — meant absolute conformity. As the Portuguese subdued the indigenous secular authority, so, too, did they subdue the authority of the local church. They “regularized” the ecclesial life of the Thomas Christians, created Latin dioceses, replaced (when opportune) the East Syriac eucharistic liturgy, or Qurbana, with the Roman rite, and purged from it elements assessed as heretical.

In 1599, Portuguese Archbishop Alejo de Meneses of Goa called a synod that, while not outright suppressing the Qurbana, imposed European bishops of the Latin rite as well as Latin–rite doctrine, law, rubrics and disciplines, such as clerical celibacy. India’s Thomas Christians reluctantly signed the synod’s directives. Most church historians today question the legality of the synod.

The decrees of this Synod of Diamper polarized the Thomas Christian community and culminated with the Coonan Cross Oath in January 1653. There, near the Portuguese– occupied Fort Kochi, significant numbers of Thomas Christians severed communion with Rome. Vowing to re–establish the pre– Portuguese church, 12 priests laid hands on the archdeacon of all India, also named Thomas, and “ordained” him bishop.

A new order. Through the pastoral diplomacy of the Carmelite friars, the papacy re–established full communion with the majority of Thomas Christians, who formed the nucleus of the modern Syro–Malabar Catholic Church.

Many Thomas Christians resolved to return to the old order, but they failed to re–establish communion with the Church of the East, which at the time suffered its own crises. By 1665, India’s Thomas Christians pledged fidelity to the Syriac Orthodox patriarch of Antioch, in theory accepting the West Syriac traditions of the Syriac Orthodox Church. It took more than 200 years for this Indian (or Malankara) Syriac Orthodox Church to become truly West Syriac, as its roots in the Church of the East were firmly entrenched.

India’s Orthodox Christians, who formed an autonomous part of the Syriac Orthodox Church, suffered periodic bouts of internal strife. These divisions led to further schisms, such as the establishment of the Malabar Independent Syrian Church in the 18th century. Overtures to the Church of England resulted in the creation of an Anglican community, the Mar Thoma Church, in the 19th century. There were at least four attempts to re–establish full communion with Rome, culminating in the creation of the Syro–Malankara Catholic Church in 1930.

Additional battles over patriarchal power and issues of autonomy led to the creation of a “Catholicosate of the East” in 1912. That year, the former Syriac Orthodox patriarch of Antioch consecrated an Indian Orthodox bishop as “Catholicos of the East,” thereby establishing an autocephalous (or independent) Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. In 1934, this church set up its constitutions, which identified the nature of the church and its relationship to the Syriac Orthodox Church and its patriarch.

This independent church was not accepted by those who remained loyal to the Syriac patriarch of Antioch, who then created a separate jurisdiction and appointed a catholicos loyal to him. The two groups, which share the same West Syriac rites and traditions, were reconciled in 1958 when the Supreme Court of India ruled that only the independent catholicos and those bishops in full communion with him had legal recognition. This reconciliation ended in 1975 when the Syriac patriarch excommunicated and deposed the independent catholicos and appointed a rival, splitting the church again.

A 1995 ruling by India’s Supreme Court attempted to unite the two communities.

In it, the court upheld the canons created in 1934 by the independent Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and ordered both groups to adopt them. In addition, the court ruled there is only one Indian Orthodox Church — though divided into two factions — and recognized the Syriac Orthodox patriarch of Antioch as the spiritual head of the universal Syriac Church. Nevertheless, the court affirmed the legal personality of the independent catholicos and his custody of parishes and properties within his jurisdiction.

Life of the church. The present head of the independent Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, Baselios Mar Thoma Paulose II, Catholicos of the East and Malankara Metropolitan, was enthroned in 2010. He shepherds a growing community that includes monastic houses for men and women and 26 eparchies. The current head of the Malankara Syriac Orthodox Church, Catholicos of India Mor Baselios Thomas I, was enthroned in 2002 and guides his scattered flock in full communion with the patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church.

Despite its internal conflicts, the Indian Orthodox Church is an active participant in the worldwide ecumenical movement, focusing its efforts with the churches of the Byzantine and Syriac traditions. A dynamic force, especially in Kerala, it sponsors institutions of higher learning, including theological centers, colleges of arts and sciences and engineering schools, as well as primary and secondary schools and child care institutions.

Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s vice president for communications.

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