Malankara World

History of Church

The Malankara Church: Orthodox Syrian or Syrian Orthodox?

by Matthew Tsipras, Rev. Dn. Zach Varghese, M.D., and George Aramath

Question: by Matthew Tsipras

As far as I know of, there are two major churches in the United States that claim to be Malankara Orthodox. One refers to itself as Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church. The other is the The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, to which I belong. Please forgive me if I am mistaken. Is it possible that both sides belong to the same church or that both have the right to refer to themselves as Malankara Orthodox Churches.

Supposedly, there are two Indian Orthodox groups in India, one is legitimate and the other is heretical. One is the Indian Orthodox Church, to which I belong, and it is schismatic of the Syriac Orthodox Church.

"The Malankara Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church (or sometimes called Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, an Orthodox church in Malankara, Kerala) is a branch and an integral part of the Syriac Orthodox Church with the Patriarch of Antioch, His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas as its supreme head. The local head of the church in Malankara is the Catholicose of India, His Beatitude , ordained by and accountable to the Patriarch of Antioch.

In contrast, another faction of Malankara Orthodox Church, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church is the Indian Orthodox Church, an autocephalous church. Both are of the Oriental Orthodox communion."

Supposedly, I belong to the autocephalous church. What I would like to know is how the hierarchies of the two groups split. From what I've heard, it was over wealth and power but that sounds all too simplistic.

"The people who were eager for the continuation of its Holy Apostolic faith, organized themselves and worked tirelessly for the revival of the true faith. Finally due to the continued requests of the bishops, clergy and the vast number of people, the Patriarch had to convene the Universal Synod of the Syrian Orthodox Church in 1975 and had to take necessary action against the defiant Catholicose. Because of the stubborn attitude of the opponents, the Patriarch was forced to excommunicate the Catholicose Augen I, in order to safeguard the true faith of Malankara Church, after giving ample time to correct his stand."

After excommunication, Augen I founded his own independent Malankara Church, and established a diocese in the United States.

If this schism did take place, and if I belong to the schismatic group, then wouldn't what I've belonged to for the past three years be a lie?


Answer: Rev. Dn Dr.  Zach Varghese answers:

Dear Mathew,

The split in the Malankara Church has led to confusion - and God is not the author of confusion. This, sadly, is the work of man in his attempt to gain predominance.

To bring a word of reassurance - your Faith is not a lie. On essential doctrine, the Indian Orthodox Church believes the same as the Syrian Orthodox Church. The teachings about Christ, salvation, Bible, mission, etc. are the same.

The difference is in the hierarchy and its origins. This is a long and complicated story. I encourage you to sift through some of the archives of this group. You will find detail after detail and argument after argument concerning this split. This forum does not censor legitimate opinions as some others do - you will find both sides.

In a nutshell, before the Portuguese came in the 1600s all the Christians were Syrian Orthodox. All the Orthodox in Malankara (Kerala, India) were Syrian Orthodox until the 1850's (some Nestorians are present, but again using a form of Syriac in their worship). Now about half the Orthodox is Syrian Orthodox and half Indian Orthodox. Catholics are the majority of Christians.

Two singular figures bring us to the present predicament in the Orthodox Church. (I'm sure there are more, but these two will suffice for now). One is Bishop Dionysius Vatterserril, who is the beginning of the schism (1850s). He went to a deposed patriarch (HH Abdul Mashish) and became ordained as a leader of the Indian Christians. He could not get ordination from the legitimate Patriarch of Antioch. As you can imagine, this did not sit well with the faithful when they heard about it.

Some were attracted to this new leader because he represented independence from a "foreign culture". (As if Jesus was Indian!) Also because of issues with property ownership (rumors were started that the Patriarch of Antioch wanted to directly control each parish, etc.), some were attracted to Mor Vatterseril. Eventually, the Mor Vatterseril group got the backing of powerful media and corporate conglomerates. Some bishops decided to join the Mor Vatterseril group. Because of parish and family loyalties, many people came under this group's control.

One big problem arose - who controlled the parishes. The Syrian Orthodox built all the churches, seminaries, etc. But in some areas the supporters of the Indian Orthodox were large in number. So, instead of leaving the church and building their own facilities, the Indian Orthodox decided to take over what they could. Their aim was to destroy the Syrian Orthodox so that no one could challenge their legitimacy.

Legitimacy is a sore spot for the Indian Orthodox. Many theories have emerged as to the "ancient" nature of the Apostolic Succession they purport. Though ordained by a successor of St. Peter, their leader claims that they have an Apostolic right to rule the Indian Christians because of the missionary activity of St. Thomas, who was martyred in southeast India (ca. AD 50-70). This is patent rubbish, because St. Thomas did not ordain a recorded successor.

Now we come to the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's. Many worked for peace and reunification of the church on both sides because everyone realized that the two groups were practicing the same faith derived from Syriac Christianity. The leader of the Indian Orthodox Church, after swearing to uphold all the aspects of faith (including succession), knelt before the Patriarch of Antioch Ignatious Yakub III and received the title "Catholicos of the East," a title that was abolished in the Church in the 1800s but resurrected to celebrate the fact that the Indian Church was an important integral part of the Universal Church, and that a strong position of authority had be engiven to the Indians. The name of the Catholicos was Mor Augen I.

Unfortunately, in 1975 Mor Augen I blatantly forgot his oath to the Universal Church, claiming again that the Indian Church is autocephalous. Many properties built by those who remained true to the Universal Church were stolen. Some churches are closed to this day because a few families who are Indian Orthodox refuse to leave parishes where the majority is Syrian Orthodox. The Syrian Church is not seeking the closure of any church.

The current schism in the church rests with Mor Augen I, his successor, and supporters. Period.

The matter eventually went to the Supreme Court of India, which unequivocally stated in 1995 that the Indian Church is NOT autocephalous. Period.

Hence, the ordination of their present Catholicos is in question. The court limited the temporal authority of the Patriarch of Antioch in a way that was not acceptable to the Syrian Orthodox. So, in a bold move, and exercising the right to freedom of religion granted by the Constitution of India, the Syrian Christians withdrew from the legal association of churches that were in dispute in the Supreme Court case and formed another legal association.

BUT the Supreme Court's decision that the Indian Orthodox Church is NOT autocephalous still holds!

The current Patriarch, HH Ignatious Zakka I Iwas, left the legitimate Catholicate vacant for several years before the ordination of Mor Baselios Thomas I in hopes of bringing the two churches back together. Unfortunately, hopes for a lasting peace from a theological point of view were dashed when the Indian Orthodox Church unilaterally declared Mor Vatterserril as a saint, without permission from the Patriarch. Now, the Indian Orthodox have several hundred court cases against the Syrian Orthodox Church. We have none against them. This is an effort to exhaust the Syrians and gain control of parishes. Some churches are closed because a sharing settlement cannot be reached. Again, in every case, though foolish, the Syrian Christians are willing to share the parishes in question rather than see the parish closed. The Indian Orthodox would rather the parish rot. See for yourself - http://groups.yahoo.com/group/SOCM-FORUM/message/6895

The issue for you, Mathew, is whether you should leave a schismatic group and join the Universal Church. A few things to keep in mind. The Indian Orthodox faction is under excommunication. The sacraments practiced are legitimate, but not legal! No one questions the legitimacy of the Syrian Orthodox Church outside of India. No group outside of India believes that the Indian Orthodox Church is fully legitimate (although the group has representatives in various international bodies). Being part of the Universal Church reminds us that our faith is not an ethnic association, but the message of Christ to all people through all time. The Syrian Patriarch received the right to administer India in AD 325 at the council of Nicea (of "creed" fame)!!!

The Universal Church has been drained by this fight, but plenty of talent still remains. Your faith, whether called "Indian Orthodox" by some, is actually and truly Syrian Orthodox. The Syrian Church has witnessed for Jesus Christ since the very beginning of Christianity. If you are willing, you can find yourself in the company of those who have bled and died for the faith you hold. You can help rebuild that which was lost.

As an aside, if the Indian Orthodox Church is administered by the "Catholicos of the East," then what right does he have over the Christians outside the East? You and I are in the West, where there should be no question over who has jurisdiction (The Patriarch of Antioch AND all the East (not just the East), supreme head of the Universal Syriac Orthodox Church).

Whatever your decision, I thank you for your questions. Similar questions are asked by our youth members all the time. We all must be honest searchers for the Truth.

Dn. Zach Varghese, M.D.


The Malankara Church: Orthodox Syrian or Syrian Orthodox? by George Aramath

Answer by George Aramath

Brother Matthew Tsipras,

Your entry on the forum really made me think about your situation. You seem like a genuine Christian who wants to learn the history of your church. From my understanding, you are presently a part of the Indian Orthodox Church under the leadership of Bishop Makarios. I want to reply to your questions because your curiosity seems sincere. You have a desire to learn the truth, which may have been hidden to you for many years. From your entry, I can see that you have read and researched the materials for which you are still curious.

You ask, "What I would like to know is how the hierarchies of the two groups split. From what I've heard, it was over wealth and power but that sounds all too simplistic."

I can answer this question through a historic perspective or with a macro view of what essentially happened. I must admit that I cannot provide you with all the exact historical names, dates, places, etc. that relate to this question. I, too, am still trying to learn these things. But I can put it into simple terms.

As you already know, with power comes many responsibilities. Some are able to fulfill those responsibilities while others fail. Unfortunately, with power comes the danger of pride. As Mr. Paul Reji wrote, this is true from the very beginning when Satan abused his power and desired to be equal with God; as also is the case with Adam and Eve. So how does this tie into your question? As you've probably read, power was granted to the universal church under four patriarchs, that of Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople. Churches obviously need leaders. So they were chosen by all Christians to lead different parts of the universal church in the 4th century. No one denies this. Christianity spread all throughout the world because of the cooperation of all. Everyone had the genuine desire to come together. The church stood unified under the leadership of these patriarchs. This is the church that I also desire to see someday. A church that stands united, with one voice. I am sure that most Christians also desire this unity. So what happened?

Human pride and the desire for power swept through the church. Independence became the cry of the local leaders. Why should we listen to some foreigner when we can decide things on our own? This is the history of most churches, especially so in India. Look at how the MarThoma, Syro-Malabar, and Orthodox Syrian Church was formed. Their original leaders desired to break away from the spiritual guidance of Antioch. Just look at their names, for each one has Syrian identity (MarThoma named after the first bishops, Syro for Syria, and Syrian). The reasons for breaking away are many. Yes, maybe the Patriarch made mistakes in the past. But does this mean that we should break away? If so, when will the divisions stop?

All of us must understand that our forefathers upheld the faith and traditions of our church. Our responsibility is to continue this. When I went to India, I saw and heard about the sacrifices made by our forefathers to keep the faith of Antioch. But more importantly, I saw the tombs of the Syrian patriarchs and bishops who came to India to keep this faith. If some of these leaders have made mistakes in the past, I overlook them because I also see the countless tombs of our self-sacrificing Syrian leaders. I see the faith of our Malankara Saints, especially St. Gregorious. History proves that he was a close and personal friend of the Patriarch during periods of division in the church. He worked for the unity of the church. This is our history. This is who we are and where we come from.

Unfortunately, history is changed to suit the needs of certain groups. The IOC say in their Holy Mass that their spiritual head is the Patriarch of Antioch, but also claim that they are an independent church. Their bishops and priests say in court that they are still under the Patriarch, but then act against him. I'm sure that you have, Brother Matthew, also heard contradicting statements from the IOC leaders. They do this for their own advantage. Only time will prove what their true motives are.

But you must understand that there is only one true version of history. An unbiased and open-minded person can find out where that truth stands. Only one side claims with utmost confidence and unwavering faith that their spiritual leader is the Patriarch of Antioch, as it was from the 4th century onwards. But the other side is still trying to find their identity. Though they dress like us and pray like us, this does not mean that they are with us. As you said, "there are two Indian Orthodox groups in India, one is legitimate and the other is heretical." Yes, you are right. You must find out which one is which.

Brother Matthew, I hope you understand that this ancient faith and tradition stands only with the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church. The Indian Orthodox Church is exactly want their name says. They were formed because of their sinly desire to become independent and break away. Their leadership did not care to understand that God's church is universal, not national. Unfortunately, we humans don't learn from history, but repeat it. We divide, not unite. But as individuals, we have the choice and free will to continue this division or to become united. I hope, with time, you will realize that where you stand now, you are dividing by association. I hope that God will give you the wisdom to make the choice, as hard as it may seem, to come back to the original church. If you have this desire, please know that there are many in the SOC church, including myself, who would love to help you.

You end off by writing, "If this schism did take place, and if I belong to the schismatic group, then wouldn't what I've belonged to for the past three years be a lie?" From this, I take it that you are beginning to see the truth. No matter what others may claim, what you have said is unfortunately, true. So, I pray that you will eventually serve as a role-model and witness for others who are in your situation.

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