Explained: Why the Kerala govt has taken control of an 800-year-old Church

Early on Monday morning, the Kerala government took control of Marthoman Jacobite Syrian Cathedral Church at Mulanthuruthy in Ernakulam district, which has been in the focus of a dispute between Jacobite and Orthodox factions of the Malankara Church, a prominent non-Catholic Christian community.

Take over triggered by SC verdict

The takeover has brought to the forefront a decade-long dispute between Jacobite and Orthodox factions of Malankara Church. The Church at Mulanthuruthy, built in AD 1200, has been managed by Jacobite faction, but as per a Supreme Court verdict of July3, 2017, its ownership should go to the rival Orthodox Church. 

The Supreme Court had upheld the validity of the 1934 constitution of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church to govern the parishes under the Church. Although the court verdict came on dispute over the ownership of two churches, it impacted over 1000-odd churches. The court verdict had given a clear upper hand for the Orthodox faction, which has been governed by the constitution of 1934.

Since the SC verdict, several churches under dispute have already been handed over to the Orthodox group despite stiff resistance from the bishops and laymen from the Jacobite Church. As the government delayed implementing the SC order due to political compulsions, the Orthodox Church moved various courts against the non-compliance of the order of the apex court.

Mulanthuruthy church

Established in AD 1200, the Marthoman Jacobite Syrian Cathedral Church at Mulanthuruthy is one of the ancient Churches in Kerala. The church is a fine example of Gothic architecture. The carvings, sculptures, symbolic icons and wall paintings, are a blend of Indian, West-Asian and European architecture. Most of the parishioners belong to the Jacobite faction.

Why a takeover now

In the case of the church at Mulanthuruthy, the Orthodox faction had moved a contempt of court petition, telling the Kerala High Court that their laity have been denied access to the church. The government cited the Covid-19 scenario and the monsoon havoc in the district as reasons not to take over the church as an action would demand mobilisation of force, now burdened by lockdown duties. After the single bench favoured the government stand, the Orthodox group moved a larger bench.

Rejecting the government contention, the division bench on August 12 issued an ultimatum to the Ernakulam District Collector that the church should be taken over within five days and submit a compliance report to the court. Hence, the takeover of the church in the early morning of Monday, when only a few hours have been left for executing the high court directive.

The district officials have to deploy police to remove the protesting bishops, priests and faithful of the Jacobite Church, who have been camping at the church premises since Sunday to resist the takeover. The church was locked from inside by the Jacobites, but police broke open the gates and evicted the protesting people.