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Twin Saints, Twin Churches

Two churches in southwestern India embody the Christian spirit of communion.

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church of Sts. Gervasius and Protasius and the Malankara Syriac Orthodox Church of Mar Sabor and Mar Afroth are located in the village of Akkarparambu, 20 miles north of Cochin in the southern Indian state of Kerala. A land of rice paddies and coconut trees, it was once covered in a dense forest of tropical hardwood. Tradition has it that Christians first settled there 1,200 years ago, giving rise to an extraordinary saga of twin saints and churches.

Christianity in southern India has the most ancient of roots, beginning with the arrival of St. Thomas the Apostle in 52 A.D. Subsequently, groups of Christian migrants followed from the Middle East. They landed on the subcontinent’s shores, joining those Thomas Christians whose Brahmin Hindu ancestors had embraced the faith preached by the apostle.

In 822 A.D., under the leadership of a trader named Sabar Yesor, a small group of Christians arrived from Antioch (now in modern Turkey) and founded churches in a few locations, including Akkarparambu. In the party were two bishops – twins according to tradition – Sabor and Afroth. They were pious men; the local church declared them saints after their deaths.

Portuguese merchants arrived in southern India in the 16th century. Their arrival impacted the region’s Thomas Christians, whose rites and customs differed from the Latin-rite practices of the Portuguese. Missionaries who accompanied them were pleased to find Christianity so well established there, but also disapproved of the Thomas Christians’ Eastern rites.

Since the ancient church in Akkarparambu did not accept the authority imposed by the Portuguese hierarchy, the missionaries constructed a beautiful new building near the older structure. But they were not happy about the community’s patrons – Mar (meaning “lord” or “saint”) Sabor and Mar Afroth. These twins were not recognized as saints by the Church of Rome. Searching for alternatives, they decided on Gervasius and Protasius, twin brothers from Rome martyred in the first century.

The division in the Akkarparambu parish reflected the division of the larger Thomas Christian community in all of southwestern India.

The new parish dedicated to Sts. Gervasius and Protasius was in communion with Rome; later it became a parish of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. The original parish dedicated to Mar Sabor and Mar Afroth eventually sought communion with the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch.

Fighting continued for years between the neighboring Christian communities, often over the issue of church property. Walls were then constructed to separate the churches, symbolically dividing society as well. Today these differences are largely in the past; the twin churches stand amicably side by side, each dedicated to its respective set of twins.

Akkarparambu’s Malankara Syriac Orthodox pastor, Father Varghese Palayam, describes relations between the two communities today as very cordial: “Our relationship is as close as the two churches. The only difference is that we go into different buildings to worship.”

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Tags: Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Syro-Malankara Catholic Church