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Oriental-rite Catholics commemorate struggle against communists

  • India
  • June 17 2009
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A group of Catholics in Kerala state, southern India, has observed the 50th anniversary of the Church´s struggle against communists that killed 15 Catholics. Others, however, have ignored it.

About 15,000 Catholics from the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, which belongs to the Syro-Malabar Church, held a requiem Mass and public meeting on June 13 in Angamaly, where seven of the 15 victims were buried 50 years ago.

Vayalar Ravi, the federal Overseas Affairs Minister, state opposition leader Oommen Chandy and leading Catholic politicians attended the meeting along with retired Archbishop Joseph Powathil of Changanacherry.

During the meeting, the archbishop told Catholics to be wary of the government´s policies. "The government should adopt a policy of consensus, but the communist government always opted for the path of confrontation with the Church and its leaders, whenever they were in power," he said.

The result of recent parliamentary elections was proof that the communists cannot prevail against the people´s will, he said, noting that they won only four of the 20 parliamentary seats in the state.

Federal minister Ravi, a Hindu, lauded the contributions of the Church in the state´s development, particularly in education. He also met family members of the "martyrs of Angamaly" and placed wreaths on the victims´ tombs.

The Catholic Church in Kerala involved itself in an emotive struggle against the state´s communist government soon after it came to power in April 1957. Catholic leaders said the policies of the world´s first elected communist government attempted to smother the Catholic faith and its institutions.

The Church had accused the government of trying to control Church educational institutions by attempting to exercise direct control over the appointment of teachers. The Church had argued that this went against the constitutional rights of religious minorities to manage their own educational institution without state interference.

The Christian opposition led to a statewide protest, popularly known as vimochana samaram or liberation struggle. On June 13, 1959, this turned bloody when police opened fire on demonstrators in Angamaly. The federal government dismissed the communist government later that year.

A communist-led coalition came to power in 2006 but the Church continues to be at loggerheads with it over its education and administration polices.

K.C. Kidangoor, 74, who participated at a demonstration in Angamaly on that fateful day 50 years ago, recalled the "people´s movement against the government."

He said "the people who were killed in Angamaly were from poor families."

"They had gathered around a police station to demand the release of a person who was arrested from a nearby village," he said. "Police then fired several rounds at the mob."

Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil of Ernakulam-Angamaly in a June 3 pastoral letter recalled that 15 Catholics were killed in police firing. Police clashed with protestors in 247 locations and jailed 177,850 people.

"Even after 50 years, the leftist government is following the same policies which led to the liberation struggle," Cardinal Vithayathil said in his letter.

He also criticized the communist party for attempting to distort the liberation struggle. "It will remain in the history of Kerala forever because it was a people´s movement against anti-people policies of the government," he said.

Eight of the 15 victims, in the almost yearlong struggle, were from the Latin-rite Trivandrum archdiocese.

Although the struggle was a statewide Catholic movement, only Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese publicly commemorated it. Father James Kulas, former vicar general of Trivandrum archdiocese, said, "We chose not to commemorate it because it could be misinterpreted as confrontation with political parties."

The Syro-Malabar Church and the smaller Syro-Malankara Church, both Oriental rites that follow Syrian Church traditions, and the Latin rite, which follows the Roman tradition, make up the Indian Catholic Church.

The two Oriental rites are based in Kerala state, where Ernakulam-Angamaly is located. The larger Latin rite, a product of missionary activity since the 15th century, follows the Roman liturgy.
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