The Knanaya Catholic Church in Kerala has decided not to script history by ending endogamy — and to literally court trouble.
The decision, however, came as a blow for auto-rickshaw driver Justin John Naramangalath and his bride, Vijimol.
A priest refused to solemnize their marriage on Thursday, 18 May, after the “purity”-obsessed Knanaya Church refused them the mandatory marriage eligibility certificate — or vivaha kuri.
John and Vijimol’s decision to get married, however, remained unchanged. They left the church and got married in a nearby private auditorium, where more than 750 people gathered to bless the couple.
The groom is from the Knanaya Church, while the bride, a nursing student, belonged to the Syro-Malabar Church.
John and Vijimol became news when Fr Koonankiyil Emmanuel of Thalassery Archdiocese under the Syro Malabar Church officiated their betrothal at the Kottody St Xavier’s Church in Kasaragod, Kerala’s northernmost district, on 17 April.
The betrothal was conducted with the Knanaya Church’s approval, granted after a Kerala High Court order.
The Knanaya Church prohibits its members from marrying outside the community to maintain “racial purity”, which a district court found violated the “freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion” guaranteed by the Constitution.
If members do marry outside the community, the marriage cannot be solemnised in a Knanaya church, and they are also excommunicated — that is, they cease being Knanayas.
An out-of-church wedding
John, Vijimol, their relatives, friends, and well-wishers reached the d St Xavier’s Catholic Church at Kottody to get their marriage solemnized on 18 May.
The priest demanded the marriage eligibility certificate from the Knanaya Church to which John belongs. Though his Church had approved their betrothal, it informed John on 17 May evening that it would not be issuing the certificate.
The church had not raised any objections when John’s family approached it earlier. However, despite last-minute efforts to get a certificate, the church remained adamant, forcing the couple to go for a non-religious wedding ceremony.
The Knanaya Church denied John the certificate citing Vijimol’s roots in another sect.
John, however, is not willing to let it go.
Terming the whole development extremely humiliating, especially on the day of the wedding, John said he would approach the court again, seeking justice. He said the church’s stand amounted to contempt of court.
He said such “barbaric practices” should not be allowed.
Strangely, many considered the betrothal of John and Vijimol the culmination of a three-decade-long legal battle for a right guaranteed under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution.
The betrothal marked the first ceremony allowed inside a Knanaya Church of a Knanaya with someone outside the community.
More than 35,000 members of the laity have been excommunicated in the past 25 years for marrying outsiders.
Aeronautical scientist Biju Uthup of Kottayam, who reached Kasaragod to attend the marriage, termed the development unacceptable. He felt it disregarded the court order.
A known Knanaya leader who wants reforms within the community, Uthup said the developments marked a new phase for anti-endogamy agitations.
He said police intervention was sought to implement the court order on 18 May, but they cited technical reasons to avoid meeting the church authorities and forcing them to issue the letter. Uthup said plans are afoot to file contempt cases against police officers.
Knanaya Christians trace their origin to 72 Jewish-Christian families who arrived in central Kerala in 345 CE under merchant Thomas of Cana, or Knai Thomma, from Mesopotamia.
Uthup said he was a victim of the endogamy rule. He faced ex-communication in 1989 when the church refused to approve his marriage, saying his grandmother came into the commnity, breaching the purity rules and violating the strictures.
A humiliated Uthup, who joined the Syro Malabar Church to get his marriage with Leena Uthup solemnized, started a prolonged legal battle against the endogamy rules of the Knanaya Church.
He floated the Knanaya Catholic Naveekarana Samithy (KCNS), a reformation movement of people excommunicated by the Church over marriage. He started the legal battle that extended even to the Supreme Court.
“We fought against the discrimination and illegality of endogamy. The Church so far has created an impression that it has no more options to continue the regressive practice. But on 18 May, it acted strangely, disregarding the court order,” Uthup said.
Earlier, Kottayam additional district judge Sanu S Panicker observed that endogamy was not an essential religious practice.
In the 107-page judgment, the court also held that the practice violated Article 25 of the Constitution.
The Church appealed against the verdict in the high court. The higher court said the sub-court order would prevail until it decided on the appeal’s merits.
In April, the Church accepted the sub-court order indirectly by allowing John to get engaged to Vijimol. The Church then issued all the necessary documents but took a U-turn on the eve of the wedding.
Insulted and humiliated
John said the Church never raised any objection while he was preparing for the wedding.
“I communicated the whole process of the marriage with Vijimol to the church leadership from the beginning. Based on the approval letter from the Knanaya authorities, the betrothal was conducted. They have now humiliated us,” he said.
“Initially, I made a representation to the Church supremo, Bishop Mathew Moolakkattu, seeking permission to marry outside the community. There was no objection to the representation,” he explained.
“I mentioned the recent Kerala High Court order saying that the decision over the appeal filed by the Church against a lower court order making endogamy illegal and anti-Constitutional would be taken later. Till then, the lower court order will remain valid,” he said.
“As per the information we then received, the Bishop discussed the matter in the Synod and decided not to clash with the judiciary by going against my wish to marry outside the community. But I don’t know why they are changing the position now,” John added.
Kerala’s Knanaya Church, headquartered in Kottayam, Central Kerala, has 128 parishes across the state under it. The Church has hardly 1,67,500 people as members, apart from 218 priests and nuns.
The Church claims it has been practising endogamy to maintain racial purity for over 1660 years.