To maintain 'purity of blood,' the Knanaya Catholics in Kerala did not accept marriage outside the community
Justin John became the first person from the Kottayam Knanaya archdiocese to break the endogamy practice. He is posing for a photo session with his would-be wife Vijimol Shaji during his engagement at St. Francis Xavier’s Church under the Archdiocese of Tellicherry on April 17. (Photo – supplied)
The endogamous Knanaya Catholics in the southern Indian state of Kerala have marked the end of their centuries-old practice of not marrying outside the close-knit community when one of their parishes allowed a parishioner to marry a woman outside their archdiocese.
On April 15, a priest in the Kottayam Archdiocese allowed parishioner Justin John to have his engagement with Vijimol Shaji of Tellicherry Archdiocese without John having to lose his membership in the community.
The 31-year-old John from St. Anne's Parish in the northern Kasargod district had his engagement ceremony at St. Francis Xavier’s Church in Kottody village on April 17.
The Kottayam Archdiocese, established for the Knanaya Catholic community within the Eastern rite Syro-Malabar Church, practiced strict endogamy by expelling its members if they married outside the diocesan community.
The permission John received is "a major victory for all those who were discriminated," said Biju Uthup, a retired aeronautical scientist, who pioneered the struggle against his community's endogamy practice.
Uthup said he began the campaign in 1989 to end the discriminatory practice, which was aimed at maintaining the community's “purity of blood."
"My purpose was to ensure that our children and grandchildren should not become victims of such barbaric practice,” Uthup told UCA News on April 17
A jubilant John told UCA News on April 18, a day after his engagement: "I am happy that now I will not lose my membership" in the Kottayam archdiocese.
He said he'd been searching for a suitable match from within the Knanaya community for five years, but could not find one.
"Finally, I decided to seek alliance from other Catholic dioceses,” he said adding it is an arranged marriage, as per Indian tradition, with consent from both families.
“We are planning to solemnize the marriage mid-May and are permitted to choose any Church,” John added.
Their marriage will be a turning point in the history of Knanaya Catholics.
The endogamy practice among Catholics in Kottyan Archdiocese, a diocese until 2005, is at least 17 centuries old, according to Church officials.
It was struck down by a civil court in Kerala on April 30, 2021, after a protracted legal battle by Biju Uthup and others.
The lower court ordered the archdiocese not to discriminate against its members who married from outside the archdiocese.
The court also directed the archdiocese to issue mandatory church certificates to solemnize marriages of those willing to get married from other Catholic dioceses.
The archdiocese appealed against the order before the Kerala High Court in March 2022. But the top court in the state ordered the archdiocese to comply with the lower court order during the pendency of the appeal.
Father George Karukaparambil, public relations officer, Kottayam Archdiocese, told UCA News on April 18 that "permission was given as per the direction of the court.”
He, however, refused to elaborate.
People like John say ending the age-old practice will help the Church to grow.
"Throwing the endogamy practice into the dustbin will only help the archdiocese to grow and become more vibrant.”
“Now, most of our parishes are on the verge of elimination as we don’t have enough members,” he said.
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