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The Indian Orthodox Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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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.

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Tags: India Church history Thomas Christians Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church