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Above: Security beefed up outside St Mary’s Church at Piravom in Ernakulam district following clashes between the Jacobite faction and the Orthodox Church/Photo: Manorama

A Supreme Court verdict of 2017 is finally implemented by the Kerala government but only after the High Court serves an ultimatum

By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

The Kerala government, led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, seems to be in the habit of taking orders from the courts rather lightly. The courts in turn have had to remind the government about who is the boss. Last month, the Supreme Court lashed out at the state government for not abiding by its order to demolish 343 waterfront apartments near Kochi built in violation of environmental norms. Last week, it was the turn of the Kerala High Court to force a seemingly reluctant government to comply with an apex court order of 2017 which so far remained unimplemented….

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Above: Security beefed up outside St Mary’s Church at Piravom in Ernakulam district following clashes between the Jacobite faction and the Orthodox Church/Photo: Manorama

A Supreme Court verdict of 2017 is finally implemented by the Kerala government but only after the High Court serves an ultimatum

By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

The Kerala government, led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, seems to be in the habit of taking orders from the courts rather lightly. The courts in turn have had to remind the government about who is the boss. Last month, the Supreme Court lashed out at the state government for not abiding by its order to demolish 343 waterfront apartments near Kochi built in violation of environmental norms. Last week, it was the turn of the Kerala High Court to force a seemingly reluctant government to comply with an apex court order of 2017 which so far remained unimplemented. The matter related to its order to take over the St Mary’s Church in Piravom in Ernakulam district, currently under the control of the Jacobite faction, and hand it over to the rival Orthodox faction.

On September 26, the state police broke open the gate of the sixth century church which had been witnessing clashes between the two Christian factions.

Several priests and followers of the Jacobite faction, who refused to vacate the complex following the 2017 Supreme Court order, were arrested as the police broke open the church gate.

For close to two years, the Marxist-led coalition government was hand-in-glove with the powerful Jacobite faction to stall the order implementation. Finally, the Orthodox faction leaders moved the High Court, which in turn asked the district administration to comply with the apex court order and submit a report by noon on September 26.

The conflict between the two factions is more than a century old and the recent flashpoint came as hundreds of Jacobite Church supporters camped inside the church premises. The High Court directive to the district administration to evacuate those belonging to the Jacobite faction from the Church and hand over the key to the High Court put the government under pressure. The priests and the followers of the Jacobite Church, including a large number of women, took the stand that if they were forcefully evacuated, they would commit suicide inside the place of worship. Some of them even threatened to jump into the nearby Muvattupuzha river.

Priests and followers of this faction have been involved in a long-standing tussle with the Orthodox sect over the ownership of churches in the state. However, the Supreme Court in July 2017 passed the order granting the Orthodox faction the right over 1,100 churches, including the one in Piravom.

The Orthodox faction reached the church to take possession after the Kerala High Court asked the police to provide protection to their priests to conduct religious services there.

With the Supreme Court order granting over 1,100 churches currently under the control of the Jacobites to the Orthodox Church, the situation left no room for conciliatory talks. Protesting priests and followers of the Jacobite faction had locked themselves inside the church. As the police personnel were removing the slogan chanting priests and their followers, District Collector S Suhas reached the spot and sought to pacify the protesters and held conciliatory talks with the bishops of both factions. The collector managed to convince the bishops that “there was no other option” as the district administration was bound to implement the court directive that those belonging to the Jacobite faction be removed.

Following the talks, senior bishops of the Jacobite Church appealed to followers to let the law take its course. When the bishops yielded, others also followed. Those who put up resistance were forcibly removed by the police.

Though the apex court had ordered more than two years ago that the Orthodox faction be allowed to conduct prayers at over 1,100 churches currently under Jacobites’ control, the latter refused to cede. Instead of stepping in to ensure that the SC order was implemented, the state government sat back, hoping the problem would go away on its own. The same government acted with alacrity on the SC order last year that allowed women of reproductive age to visit the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala, triggering widespread protests among the Hindu community. Just last week, in an affidavit given by the government to the High Court, it was stated that the police had to be deployed in Sabarimala after community organisations and anti-social elements created law and order problems to find a foothold in politics.

There is no similarity between the Piravom case and the Sabarimala case. In the affidavit, Sabarimala episode is not mentioned. However, it is mentioned that the Sabarimala issue concerns the general public.

In Piravom, it is a civil row between the Orthodox sect and the Jacobites under Malankara diocese, but in Sabarimala, public property was destroyed and protestors attacked devotees and media persons. They tried to stoke communal sentiments and created a scare across the state. In the affidavit given by the additional secretary, Home Department, it is mentioned that the Piravom church case is not like other issues currently going on in society.

The double standards proved costly for the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) which was trounced in the last Lok Sabha elections. Bypolls are now due in five assembly constituencies and the LDF does not have the luxury of persisting with its partisan approach as it has to regain the confidence of the Orthodox church which is predominant in the central Travancore area to make up for the loss of confidence among the majority community. Also, local body elections are less than a year away, and the next Assembly polls are due in mid-2021.

Meanwhile, the Jacobite faction claims they have lost almost all their places of worship due to the apex court order and urged the government to convene an all-party meeting to discuss the issue. In its 2017 verdict, the apex court had cited the 1934 Malankara Church guidelines. The court ruled that the Jacobite Syrian Church in Kerala cannot be a part of the Malankara group any longer even as it offered them the option of either becoming an independent church, or disbanding and joining the Orthodox Church.

The feud between the two factions in the Malankara Church had its origin in the year 1599 when a diocese council meet called the Synod of Diamper was held in Ernakulam district. The meet laid down rules and regulations for the St Thomas Christians of the Malabar Coast (Kerala) and formally united them with the Catholic Church. However, the Orthodox Malankara Christians separated from the other Christian churches of Kerala that came under the Pope in Rome. The group declared that they would be following the Patriarch of Antioch, instead of the Pope in Rome.

By 1910, the Malankara Orthodox Christians split again, with one group supporting the Patriarch of Antioch (now the Jacobite Syrian Church), and the second faction supporting their own bishop based in Kottayam (the Orthodox Church). However, till 1934, both factions coexisted peacefully. That year, the two factions, following an agreement, temporarily came together to elect a bishop. But the truce lasted only until 1973. Since then, they have been engaged in a battle over ownership of churches and their wealth.

The Patriarch of Antioch started involving himself in the daily affairs of the Church, triggering trouble. In 1974, he anointed three bishops in Kerala himself, causing a further divide among the followers leading to street fights and capturing of churches which belonged to them for all those centuries.

The issue reached the apex court in 1995. When the matter came before the bench of Justice Arun Mishra and Justice Amitava Roy for final hearing, the court ruled that the 1934 agreement would stand and made the Jacobites’ manifesto prepared in 2002 null and void. The 2017 verdict makes the 1934 agreement applicable to all the parishes and the diocese. So as per the 1934 rules, complete power rests in the hands of the Orthodox faction and their bishops. Though the case was regarding a few churches in certain areas, the ruling made it effective for all the Jacobite/ Orthodox churches in Kerala, virtually ensuring that the Jacobite Syrian Church cannot remain a separate entity anymore.

Technically, Jacobites cannot exist in the Malankara Church, although they can remain an independent church within a church like the Pentecost group. The other option for them is to join the Orthodox Church. But this is the least likely option if a circular issued on October 1 by the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church is any indication.

While acknowledging that there is no option but to abide by the apex court order, the church leaders have exhorted, through a circular, that the 3.5 lakh faithful step forward to build new churches even as they are asked to snap all links with the Orthodox faction.

This includes boycotting all goods and services from companies whose owners belong to the Orthodox church. The list mentions: the most circulated Malayalam newspaper, India’s largest tyre company, a leading footwear firm and one of India’s largest non-banking finance companies. It doesn’t end there. The circular calls on all Jacobites whose spouses belong to the Orthodox Church to divorce them and abandon the children!

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