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He explained that marriages are open between Catholics and Orthodox and that, following an agreement between Pope John Paul II and Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I, members of either congregation may receive Communion in cases of necessity from a minister of either church. This arrangement is useful in situations such as a hospital, where only one priest might be available. Catholics attend Orthodox feast day celebrations and vice versa. Coexistence is the norm.

“All communities in Kerala are mixed and thrown together,” added Varghese Baby, the Orthodox parish’s treasurer. “Therefore in daily life we don’t face problems with each other.”

Arriving on Holy Saturday, I stayed a few days as the guest of the Syro-Malabar Catholic priest, Father James Alukkal. I arose early on Sunday to attend a 3 a.m. Easter liturgy at his church. The entire ceremony lasted an hour and a half, and started with a procession along the road in front of the Orthodox church.

At least a thousand people were present. Many carried candles, as well as a crucifix. The procession was silent but for the patter of feet and lit by bursts of fountain fireworks that were set off along the walk. A steady, deep chant emanated from the Orthodox church next door. Their liturgy began at 2 a.m. and continued until 6:30.

As soon as the Catholic procession concluded, the Orthodox procession began. Much smaller in size, it consisted of a couple of hundred faithful who processed around the ancient church with candles. The thunderous bangs of firecrackers were heard as they walked.

After declaring “Christ is risen!” the Orthodox returned to their church and the chanting continued.

Next door, the music was light and modern in comparison: a powerful male voice backed by the vocals of three girls and a boy and accompanied by a man on an electric keyboard and another on drums. The hymns were reminiscent of Hollywood film music – very different from the medieval chant of the Malankara Syriac Orthodox community. In spite of their close proximity, both communities celebrated Easter harmoniously, each in its own way.

Father James took me to meet members of his parish. The Syro-Malabar parish consists of about 600 families (compared to 900 Malankara Syriac Orthodox families), many of whom trace their lineage to ancient times. Other families are recent converts to Christianity and come from low-caste communities often referred to as untouchables or “scheduled caste.”

Gervasis Payyappilly, 38, lives with his wife, Grace, his two children and his three sisters. Their 4-year-old daughter, Laris, attends a kindergarten run by local women religious. His sisters, who are dwarfs, probably will not marry within their culture because of their physical condition. He explained that his father, a Hindu, embraced Catholicism about 40 years ago. As a result, the family lost its scheduled caste status.

In an effort to raise the lowest in society, the Indian government created a quota system, passing laws by which certain Hindu caste and tribal communities would be guaranteed government jobs and college placement. If they convert from Hinduism, however, they forfeit this right. Converting to Christianity does not imply any rise in economic status – only a release from being forever untouchable and inferior to higher caste Hindus.

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