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 Wednesday, 25 December, 2002, 08:37 GMT
India's Christians: Roots and disputes
Shoppers in Delhi
Christians are a minority but celebrations are big

Christians are a tiny minority in India - less than 3% of the population.

But in the southern, coastal state of Kerala, they number around 20%.

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

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.

Deep roots

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.

Hindu architecture

The Syrian Christians have always fitted in well with their Indian surroundings.

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.

A poster of Jesus Christ
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 spiritual leader.

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.

Divisions

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," he says.

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.

See also:

04 Nov 01 | South Asia
06 Dec 02 | South Asia
24 Oct 02 | South Asia
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