Article about Syrian St.Thoma Christians in BBC
- India's Christians: Roots and disputes:
By Charles Haviland
BBC correspondent in southern India
Christians are a tiny minority in India - less than three percent of
the population. But in the southern, coastal state of Kerala, they
number around 20%.
Christians have lived and worshipped in Kerala for some 2,000 years
but the last century has been marked by a bitter feud within the
Church which has led to factional fighting.
Kranganor, on the coast of Kerala, is the cradle of Christianity in
India where according to legend, St Thomas, or Doubting Thomas - one
of the 12 apostles of Jesus - first came ashore in AD 52.
"This is the place where he landed, imparting the message of Jesus,"
says Father JB Putor, keeper of the shrine to Thomas.
St Thomas' Christian community was augmented in the fourth century by
refugees from east Syria - now Iraq.
All Kerala Christians who trace their ancestry to these times call
themselves Syrian Christians. Some have become Catholic or Protestant
in their outlook, others are Orthodox.
The melody played at the Holy Communion at the Orthodox Syrian Church
of Cheriapoli, in central Kerala, is of ancient Syria. So is the
language used in some of the prayers - Syriac, very close to what
Jesus himself spoke.
One of the congregation, Matthew Kurian, told me he was deeply
attached to this link with the early Church. "We are keeping the
Syriac language as a basis.
And Syriac is an important thing for us. There are many other
Christians here - Latin Catholics, Roman Catholics. So we are proudly
saying we are Syrian Christians," he said.
The Syrian Christians have always fitted in well with their Indian
Many Church buildings strongly resemble Hindu temples including a
carved teak porch, added to the old building at Cheriapoli.
"This porch is very like the Hindu temples in India. It is like work
found in Kathmandu, in Nepal. It is actually made by Hindu
carpenters," Mathew told me.
Kerala Christians are hoping for a peaceful Christmas
"In Kerala, we have to keep some more customs of the Hindus. Because
almost all the people here are Hindus, and we are the minority
people," he said.
The Orthodox Church in Kerala has excellent ties with Hindus and
Muslims. But the Church itself is split by a bitter feud between
those still loyal to the Syria-based Patriarch and those who in 1912,
under a local bishop, declared autonomy and set up their own
Ninety years later, Father Joseph Corespiscopa, an 86-year-old priest
from the faction loyal to the Patriarch, still cannot accept what
that bishop did.
"He violated every principle of the Church. And so he was called an
outcast. And his followers are called outcasts," said Father Joseph.
The split remains deep. Not only are the two sides at loggerheads
over spiritual authority - recent disputes over ownership of Church
buildings and property have caused factional violence, even deaths.
Father KM George, Principal of the Orthodox Theological Seminary in
Kerala, comes from the autonomous faction of the Church.
"It's very tragic. None of us endorses such violence in our Church.
We are ashamed of it. And I still hope reconciliation is possible,
because in Kerala we are the same community. We're the same family,"
It is ironic that, while some parts of India are torn by violence
between faiths, this ancient and unique stream of Christianity should
be turning in on itself with a vengeance.
Ordinary congregations are simply praying that a spirit of
reconciliation can prevail this Christmas.