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April 29, 1998


Sons of Church sacrifice Christian values on altar of power struggle

D Jose in Thiruvananthapuram

The Vatican's decision to grant full powers to Syrian Christian bishops to decide matters related to liturgy has failed to end the 20-century-old fight in the Church in Kerala.

Even before the bishops could take up the long-pending liturgical reforms, the warring factions are all set for a showdown on May 7. Their bone of contention this time is a new cross sought to be introduced, and the revised parish committee rules, both brought in by the east Syrian lobby known as Chaldeans.

The reformists, who have rallied under the Nazrani Catholic Paithraka Samarakshana Samithi, have not taken kindly to this. They propose to register their protest by making a bonfire of the objectionable portions of the cross and the copies of the new Parish Committee rules on May 7 at Ernakulam, the headquarters of the Syro-Malabar Church.

The Chaldeans say they will prevent the action at any cost. They have already sought the help of the government in averting it.

The reformists see the twin moves as part of a larger plan to Chaldeanise the Church. They are opposed to the new cross called 'Mar Thoma cross'. This, they say, is the replica of the Manichaen cross, long rejected by the establishment. The Manichaen cross represented a 3rd century Persian Christian fanatic, Mani, who was persecuted for holding views not in conformity with the faith.

Mani claimed it was the holy ghost of Jesus Christ, and not Christ himself, who was executed on the cross. He said he was the reincarnation of Christ. There is a small sect of Christians in West Asia who believe in Mani's teachings -- they are the Manichaens.

The Manichaen cross contains the figure of a dove, which the reformists say symbolises the holy ghost. It also has lotus petals.

The Chaldeans deny the reformists's charges, claiming the new cross shows the sign of salvation for Christians. As for the lotus petals, those symbolise Indian-ness, they say.

"We will prevent the burning of the cross even if we have to use force," said John Kachiramattom, president of the All Kerala Catholic Congress, which owes allegiance to the Chaldean faction.

The Church authorities, too, have warned the protestors against the move. "The protest by members of the community should reflect the spirit of teachings by Christ," a spokesman said.

The reformists, for their part, are bent on going ahead. "If we allow the Chaldeans to have their way, the Church will lose its identity," said Professor P T Chacko, chairman of the NCPSS, which comprises more than half a dozen organisations like the Liturgical Action Committee, All India Catholic Association, Catholic Priests Conference of India, Malabar Church Action Committee and Kerala Catholic Church Reform Movement.

Professor Chacko told Rediff On The NeT that the Chaldean bishops have started introducing the new cross in their dioceses without taking into account the religious sentiments of the priests and the laity. He said a move to replace the cross at a church in Alappuzha district was bitterly opposed by the faithfuls, resulting in the indefinite closure of that church.

As regards the new parish committee rules, Professor Chacko said they were opposing it as it would lead to the absolutism of bishops. He said the new rules, to be implemented from July 3, would destroy the democratic character of the church administration, and lead to centralisation of powers with the bishop. This is against the Mar Thoma laws, which provides for autonomy.

The Mar Thoma laws were followed in letter and spirit till the 1599 Synod of Daimber. The Synod had changed the laws under pressure from the Portuguese, who held control of the Church till the first half of the 20th century.

Pope John Paul II's decision to grant powers to the Bishops Synod to decide the liturgy came following prolonged agitation by the reformists. According to the decree, the 23-member Bishops Synod can now reform the liturgy by majority vote. The reformists fear the Chaldean bishops, who are two short of majority in the Synod, may stall the process until they gain majority.

A major bone of contention about reforms is the way the holy mass is to be conducted. While Chaldeans prefer it with the priest facing the altar, the reformists are for his facing the people. Both styles prevail in the Church now.

Not many in the Church are optimistic that the resolution of this dispute would bring peace, since the fight is basically for power. The reformists firmly believe the Chaldeans's aim is to hoist their leader, Changanacherry Archbishop Joseph Powathil, as the archbishop of the 3.5 million-strong Church, which has a vast fortune under it. They fear that once Powathil becomes the head of the Church he would go for its annexation with the Chaldean patriarcate, which Rome had rejected way back in 1897.

The Changanacherry archbishop, who has the support of the Congregation of Oriental Churches which controls the eastern churches, treats the Syro-Malabar Church as the sister of the Chaldean institution, headquartered in Damascus.

The reformists challenge the Chaldean contention saying that Syro-Malabar Church can never be treated as the sister Church of Syria as it was established by St Thomas in 52 AD, whereas the latter came up only in the 3rd century. The reformists say the Chaldean sympathisers are trying for annexation to better its financial prospects.

Many Christians feel the Syro-Malabar Church may loss its coveted status as the major archiepiscopal church if the fight between the two factions continue unabated. They fear the Pope may take back the powers granted to the Bishops Synod if it is not resolved amicably.

Though the Syro-Malabar Church was upgraded as the major archiepiscopal one in 1992, the powers related to liturgy and appointments were reserved with the Holy See, as it was felt that the bishops had not attained the required maturity to manage an independent Church. Rome has already taken serious view of the unrest. It sees the agitation as a veiled rebellion against the will of the supremo pontiff.

"It is a source of regret to see rekindled controversies against the legitimate pastors and even against the Holy See addressed in a tone quite different from that which befits the affectionate sons of the Church," a letter from Rome reads.

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