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Coconuts and Bishops

India’s Thomas Christians may be members of several churches, but all share a common patrimony.

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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While coconuts are the mainstay of its local economy, there is a city in Kerala that is at the heart of what might be considered India’s Bible Belt.

“Kottayam is famous for coconuts and bishops,” says the Syro-Malabar Catholic Bishop of Kottayam, Mar Kuriakose Kunnacherry (Mar is a Syriac word for Lord and is today used to denote a bishop).

Indian Christianity dates to the first century, when St. Thomas arrived on India’s southwestern shores and preached the Good News. The descendants of those who first embraced the faith are today known as Thomas Christians. But while sharing a common patrimony, Thomas Christians belong to a trio of traditions – Catholic, Orthodox and Reformed – and most have their own bishop.

This fractured Christian community reflects the subcontinent’s turbulent history and the influences of outsiders, particularly Middle Eastern and European.

Culturally and religiously diverse, Kerala has been spared the internecine violence affecting other states in India.

“All communities in Kerala are thrown together, so in daily life we don’t have problems with each other,” explains Varghese Baby, a lay member of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church.

“Kerala is the most tolerant place in India, and here we live in peace and harmony. Compare this with the north, where sectarian violence is common.

“Here we are educated. In every nook and cranny people read the newspaper. We are aware of the whole world, even the common man. Kerala is a fertile place for any religion to flourish. Hospitality is a basic habit.”

Although there is an ecumenical movement among the Thomas Christian laity, Mar Kuriakose says, “the main obstacle to unity we face is the hierarchy.”

“But things are improving,” he adds. “We are understanding each other better.”

He also explains that while attempts to unify the Orthodox and Catholic churches have failed in the past, in the last 10 years there have been significant advances in dialogue among all groups.

“An ecumenical shrine dedicated to St. Thomas has been built at Nilackal, the site of one of the churches established by the apostle,” the Bishop continues. “The government of Kerala donated four acres of land and the Holy See, through CNEWA, donated $100,000 to help us complete it.

“An ecumenical trust, made up of nine bishops belonging to four churches, runs the shrine, which also includes space for meetings, conferences and retreats.”

The bishops, using a common liturgy for the occasion, jointly consecrated the shrine.

“Nowhere else is there such a place for dialogue, retreat and prayer,” comments Ramban Theophorus, a priest of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. He describes the history of the church in India as painful, but concedes that “now there is friendship among all groups, especially among the bishops.”

While acknowledging occasional clashes between members of the two rival Orthodox churches, especially in northern Kerala, the priest admits these clashes are rarely violent.

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Tags: India Ecumenism Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Thomas Christians Seminaries