From ONE Magazine

Twin Saints, Twin Churches

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.”

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.

Gervasis owns no land, only the tiny plot where his house is situated, though the family is surrounded by small coconut plantations and rice paddies where he works as a day laborer. He explained that life is precarious, as work is only seasonal; there were many months when he could not work at all.

The building of the new Ernakulam International Airport nearby has had little impact on the lives of the poor, except for the eviction of some to build runways and a tiny plot of land as compensation.

The effects of globalization in Kerala are apparent as farmers try to compete with cheaper coconuts and rice shipped from abroad. Rubber, coffee and tea markets have also suffered – commodity prices dropped by as much as a third of what they were a few years ago. This drop strongly affected day laborers like Gervasis. Nevertheless, these workers manage to get by with occasional odd jobs.

Gervasis and Grace have been active in helping build the new Catholic church, under construction on the site of the old.

Gervasis reported that he has no friends among the Orthodox community, for no particular reason other than they tend to be upper class and do not interact with people of more humble origins.

Gervasis’ neighbor, Polycarp, is head of the local former scheduled caste Christian community. In conversation, he revealed that although he and his family are Christians and therefore outside the caste system devised by Hindus, he remains conscious of the caste system.

“The local municipality discriminates against us still, especially regarding marriage,” he says. “We are not able to ‘marry up’ into the old families” who trace their lineage from the ancient Thomas Christians, “and often feel superior. However, we are invited to attend social functions just like anyone else, and in church we are equal.”

Today Polycarp and his family may sit anywhere in church; 50 years ago they would have been segregated.

Paul Allukkal is head of one of the old Thomas Christian families. He and his wife, Alice, run a coconut business and have friends from all classes and creeds.

“We are the best of friends with all people throughout the community, regardless of background,” he told me.

At another middle-class house nearby, Jeffrey Paul and his friends relax after their Easter feast of fried chicken, pork, beef, fish and vegetables. Some play cards on a shaded balcony in the heat of the afternoon. These folks are also from the old families of the Catholic parish, and are mostly involved in business.

Jeffrey worked for several years in Singapore and the Gulf States as an electrical engineer. His high earnings allowed him to build a beautiful home for his parents and buy them a car. Fine modern houses like theirs dot the rustic Kerala countryside, the fruits of labor of sons who work overseas. In the process, Kerala becomes increasingly polarized between rich and poor.

Akkarparambu’s twin churches are renowned as miraculous sites where children, particularly those with speech defects, are cured. Parents bring their children from far and near because of the reputations of these two houses of God.

Families stay in the church for a few days; following custom, the afflicted child will often parade around either church, ringing a small bell from time to time. “There have been many miracles in curing children, which I have indeed witnessed myself,” Father James told me.

The tiny, decaying sanctuary of Sts. Gervasius and Protasius was demolished a few years ago and in its place a large, striking building is nearing completion. Built with support from CNEWA, the church is a hybrid style with overhanging tile roofs, Byzantine windows and a marble floor; it should amply hold the congregation of some 2,000 faithful.

My final and lasting image of the twin churches of Akkarparambu was of the two priests, Father James and Father Varghese, standing in front of the ancient Malankara Syrian Orthodox church. The Catholic priest wore his white cassock while his Orthodox colleague wore black. Parishioners from both communities gathered around them amicably. Past differences seem to have been resolved with the help of time and pragmatism. Twin churches honoring two sets of twins set a progressive model for Christian communion both in India and the world.

Based in Wales, Sean Sprague is a frequent traveler to India.