In a first, a purity-obsessed Kerala church to permit a non-endogamous wedding

The Knanaya Catholic Church allows a member to marry from another Catholic denomination even as it's locked in a legal battle.

ByK A Shaji

Published Apr 18, 2023 | 4:16 PM Updated Apr 19, 2023 | 1:12 PM

Kanaya

Justin John Naramangalath and Vijimol’s betrothal on Monday, 17 April, at a church in Kasaragod was 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 permitted in the church for those who do not follow the endogamy that is practised by the Knanaya Church, which prohibits its laity from marrying outside the community.

Those who went against the fiat were hitherto excommunicated. More than 35,000 members of the laity were excommunicated during the past 25 years for marrying outside the community.

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.

On Monday, Fr Koonankiyil Emmanuel of Thalassery Archdiocese under the Syro Malabar Church officiated the betrothal of automobile mechanic John, 31, and nursing student Vijimol at the Kottody St Xavier’s Church in Kasaragod, Kerala’s northernmost district.

Scripting history

Aeronautical scientist Biju Uthup of Kottayam celebrated when John scripted history as the first person to get engaged to a woman outside the Knanaya eparchy with the permission of the archeparchy.

Knayi Thomman

Knanaya Christians trace their origin to 72 Jewish-Christian families who arrived in central Kerala in 345 A.D. under the merchant named Thomas of Cana from Mesopotamia.

Uthup was a victim of the endogamy rule, he told South First over the phone. He faced excommunication in 1989 when the Knanaya Church refused to approve his marriage, saying his grandmother came into the family breaching the purity rules and violating the strictures.

A humiliated Uthup, who joined the Syro Malabar Church to get his marriage with Leena Uthup solemnised, started a prolonged legal battle against 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 has learnt that it has no more options to continue the regressive practice,” Uthup said.

“John’s betrothal marks the beginning of the end of centuries-old endogamy practised by the Knanayas,” he gushed.

Several others, who were associated with Uthup in the battle against endogamy, also expressed happiness over the change.

Retired physical education teacher Santha Joseph of Thanneermukkam North village in the Alappuzha district is one among them.

Now in her early 70s, she termed endogamy illegal and violative of Article 25 of the Indian Constitution.

In 1977, her husband TO Joseph was excommunicated by the Knanaya leadership for marrying her — a Christian belonging to another denomination.

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Anti-constitutional practice

In 2018, the excommunicated members moved court against the archeparchy and received a favourable order.

Knanaya

Placards decrying endogamy outside the Knanaya diocese in Kottayam. (Sourced)

Upholding the lower court’s decision, the Kottayam additional district judge Sanu S Panicker observed that endogamy was not an essential religious practice.

In the 107-page judgement, the court also held that the practice violated Article 25.

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.

Now, the Church has accepted the sub-court order indirectly by allowing John to get engaged to Vijimol. Their marriage will be solemnised at the Knanaya Church at Kottody on 2 May.

John’s initiative

John hails from the St Anne’s Knanaya Catholic Parish at Kottody. Speaking to South First, John said he never thought that the Church would allow him to marry Vijimol.

“I made a representation to the Church supremo, Bishop Mathew Moolakkattu, seeking permission to marry outside the community,” he explained how he got the approval.

“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.

“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,” John added.

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The Knanaya Church

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.

Knanaya

The HQ parish of Knanaya Church in Kottayam. (Sourced)

The Church is said to be practising endogamy to maintain racial purity for over 1660 years.

Santha Joseph told South First that she belonged to Kerala’s Malankara Jacobite Orthodox Syrian Church, an oriental autonomous church.

She married Joseph at a parish church of the Syro Malabar Church, Kerala’s most prominent Catholic Church, after joining it along with the groom.

“It was not a love marriage. It was an arranged marriage with the active involvement of both families. His family dared to violate the endogamy rules while looking for a bride on a par with the educational and social status of their son,” she said.

In those days, well-educated Knanaya men and women were rare. So my schoolteacher husband with higher qualifications decided to marry from outside,” Santha, now a mother of two and a grandmother of six, said.

Her husband Joseph chipped in. “I was then 35 and didn’t understand the realities of endogamy. I was prevented from attending even marriages and funerals of my close relatives after my marriage,” he recalled.

“I was prohibited from entering the cemetery where my parents were buried. I then resolved to challenge the discriminatory and inhuman endogamy rule in court along with Uthup,” he added.

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Knanaya Catholic Naveekarana Samithy

Joseph said endogamy is against the Indian Constitution, Catholic Church canons, and the Biblical way of treating humans. He is now the president of KCNS.

Knanaya

A Knanaya church in Kottayam. (Sourced)

Constituted under the charitable societies act in 1990, KCNS works to expose the hollowness of the racial purity theories and end the practice of endogamy prevailing in the Kyanaya community.

Recalling the legal battle, Joseph said that, instead of accepting the sub-court order, the Church went in appeal.

“But now it feels it does not have many options,” he opined.

Joseph said the sub-court was categorical that the right to marry specified under Article 21 and the right to religion detailed under Article 25 must be respected by the Church.

When the Church went in appeal in the district court, the district court ratified the observations of the lower court.

The matter then came up before the Kerala High Court.

While Uthup facilitated the filing of the case, the petitioners were Joseph, his friends 65-year-old K Lukose Mathew of Kurichithanam Village in Kottayam, and 68-year-old CK Punnen from Athirampuzha in Kottayam.

Mar Mathew Moolakkatu (Metropolitan Archbishop of the Archeparchy of Kottayam), the Archeparchy of Kottayam, the Major Archbishop of Syro Malabar Major Archiepiscopal Church in Kochi, Synod under the Bishop of the Syro Malabar Major Archiepiscopal Church in Kochi, Congregation for the Oriental Churches at Rome in Italy and the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in Rome were the respondents.

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The petitioners

Among the petitioners, Punnen faced no discrimination from the Church since he married within the eparchy. However, he decided to join his friends to fight the system, saying it was discriminatory.

“Even in this scientific age, the Knanaya community continues racial discrimination and upholds false notions of purity. So I preferred fighting against it as part of my efforts for community reforms,” Punnen, a retired military officer, told South First.

In the case of Lukose, a retired veterinary doctor, he married a member of Syro Malabar Church from Palai in the Kottayam district in the 1980s.

Though the Kottayam Archeparchy is under the administrative control of the Major Archbishop of Syro Malabar Major Archiepiscopal Church in Kochi, the local Bishop excommunicated Lukose.

Who are the Knanaya Christians?

Knanaya Christians trace their origin to 72 Jewish-Christian families who arrived in central Kerala in 345 CE, led by a merchant named Thomas of Cana, locally known as Knai Thoma, from Mesopotamia.

The descendants of these families were later known as Knanaya Christians. They also describe themselves as “purists” who do not marry outside their community.

Despite repeated efforts by South First, Kottayam Archeparchy’s public relations wing refused to respond to questions on why it permitted the betrothal of John.

Last year, public relations officer Dr. George Karukamparambil told media that the Church went in appeal as the court verdict was against centuries-old traditions of the Church, which treats purity as its distinct character.

“Over 35,000 people have been excommunicated from the Church in the last 25 years for marrying outside the eparchy. We opted for the legal route after years-long communication with the Vatican turned futile,” Uthup said.

Three years ago, the racial purity issue among Knanayas grabbed public attention in Kerala.

A romantic-comedy film, Happy Sardar, depicted the troubles faced by a Knanaya Catholic family in Kottayam whose younger daughter married a Punjabi Sikh.

End of a short film

Two years ago, an untitled Malayalam short film had to be withdrawn from Facebook after it drew criticism and many trolls.

Young members of the Knanaya church at Pazhuthuruthu near Kottayam had made the film, which many regarded as regressive.

It begins with a woman in her early 20s declaring that no Knanaya woman with self-respect would marry outside the community — not even Catholics of other denominations.

The short film showed many priests, elders, young professionals, and business magnets in the community who pledged not to allow any marriage between a Knanaya and an outsider.

Punnen said the racial purity claims of his Church violated even the basic Christian principles.

“Normally, a Christian accommodates everybody in his Church, whether rich or poor, white or black,” he noted.

“As per Christian belief, marriage is among the Seven Sacraments Jesus Christ prescribes. Excommunication over marriage is unholy, unlawful, illegal, inequitable, unconstitutional, unethical, and inhuman,” Uthup said.

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The evil of excommunication

He said the personal and social consequences of excommunications, rejections, and expulsions are highly devastating.

Knanaya

A Knanaya wedding in progress.

The excommunicated members have no other church to go to. Due to this humiliating treatment by the Church, many expelled members even started questioning the Christian faith’s basic tenets.

Jospeh said hundreds of men remained unmarried since they could not find brides within the community.

“The bishop and the diocese are expelling helpless members without considering the moral implications or psychological and emotional impact of their actions,” he alleged.

The policy followed by the Church leads to several absurd situations. For instance, when the wife from a different diocese dies, the Knanaya husband will be readmitted to the Church.

The widower can marry a member of the community. Consequently, his children from the first marriage will belong to another diocese, while the second wife and children belong to the Kottayam diocese.

There are situations in which members of a single-family belong to two different Catholic dioceses.

Lukose said that even well-educated professionals like doctors, engineers, lawyers, and teachers could not find suitable partners from their community and were compelled to marry outside.

Men from poor and educationally lower families are not getting brides from the same community because most women choose nursing as their profession, and get employed outside Kerala or abroad.