Vadayaparambu Mar Bahanas Church in Kerala, a traditional building of the Malankara Church. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The communist-led government in Kerala has decided to promulgate an ordinance to facilitate the dignified burial of Christians from two warring factions in a move to maintain peace in the southern Indian state.
State Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told media that the government move came after the dispute between Orthodox and Jacobite factions over burial grounds spilled over to the streets, threatening peace.
“The government decided to take the ordinance route after all efforts to resolve the issue through discussions failed,” Vijayan told reporters on Jan. 1 after a cabinet meeting in state capital Thiruvananthapuram.
The century-long wrangling took a violent turn after India’s Supreme Court ordered the control of some 700 disputed church properties to be given to the Orthodox group.
Since the July 2017 order, the Orthodox group has been opposing access to the Jacobite faction to church properties, including burial grounds, which had been their common property until factionalism began in 1911.
Some parts of Kerala witnessed violent street fights as the Jacobite faction forced their way to bury their dead in family graves of their parish cemeteries that the Orthodox faction now owns with the strength of the court order.
“We had been making all efforts to resolve the issue. Though we tried to hold discussions, one faction refused to come for talks,” Vijayan said.
The Jacobite faction has welcomed the government move as a “bold decision that will enable a decent and dignified burial” for their dead.
However, the Orthodox faction said it violated the order of the Supreme Court, India’s top court.
Jacobite priest K.O. Joy told ucanews that the court order had deprived 1.5 million Jacobite people of their places of worship and even burial grounds.
“The state government's decision to allow us to access the cemeteries will help us have trouble-free and dignified burials of our beloved people in their family graves,” Father Joy told ucanews on Jan 2.
However, Biju Oommen, the synod secretary of the Malankara Orthodox Church, warned of a legal move. "If the essence of the ordinance is against the spirit of the Supreme Court judgment, we will challenge it legally,” he told ucanews.
Orthodox leaders say they were ready to allow the burial of Jacobite members in family graves provided an Orthodox priest presided over the funeral rites. No Jacobite priests would be allowed, they said.
Chief Minister Vijayan said family members of the deceased, including a priest, have the right to take part in funeral and burial rites. The rights of the deceased to be buried in the family grave should also be respected, he said.
He said the state was not supporting any faction but the “only concern was to ensure peace and facilitate the burial of the dead.”
He also said that there was nothing illegal in promulgating an ordinance because the government’s only intention was to maintain law and order.
History of factionalism
The factionalism in the indigenous Malankara Church, a branch of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, began in 1911, eight years after the Sultan of Turkey in 1903 deposed the then Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius Abdul Mesih II, to whom the Malankara Church owed its allegiance.
In 1908, his successor, Patriarch Ignatius Abded Aloho, ordained two metropolitans for the Malankara Church, Mar Geevarghese Dionysius VI and Mar Kurilose Paulose. But he also tried to claim authority over the Church’s temporal wealth, which the local metropolitans resisted.
In 1911, the new patriarch excommunicated Dionysius VI, but in 1912 the deposed Patriarch Mesih supported Dionysius VI to establish an independent church based in Kerala, which became the Malankara Orthodox Church.
The Jacobites owe their allegiance to the Patriarch of Antioch, while the Orthodox consider the Kerala-based Catholicos of the East as the supreme head of the Church.
The dispute over their temporal properties — large patches of prime land and century-old churches and related institutions — began as factionalism widened.
However, in 1934 after Dionysius died, the two factions agreed on a common constitution. They also jointly elected the Catholicos of the East as their head.
But they parted ways again in 1973 after a dispute over ownership of the Church’s land and vast resources. Each faction possessed and managed properties in areas where they were numerically stable.
Streets fights, disputes and legal battles in several courts continued, forcing the state police to close several churches. Court cases between them and against the state continued for years.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear them all as a consolidated case. In 1995, the court ruled that the 1934 constitution stood and, accordingly, the Catholicos of the East were the head of the Church.
The Jacobite faction refused to join the Orthodox group and petitioned the court with newer arguments. But the court in July 2017 rejected the case, saying their 1934 agreement stood.
According to the constitution agreed by both parties, the Patriarch of Antioch has no temporal powers in India, while the Jacobite bishops and priests of the Malankara Orthodox Church have complete authority to manage church properties, the court said.
The Orthodox faction accuses the government of not implementing the court verdict that they should take over churches from the Jacobite wing.
The Jacobite faction approached the Supreme Court last August to establish their right to worship, but the court refused to intervene.