In the 16th century when the Portuguese arrived on India's southwestern coast, they were astounded to find a thriving Christian church, tracing its roots back to the Apostle Thomas, who is believed to have brought Christianity to India in the year 52.

Today, there are seven million "St. Thomas Christians" in the southern Indian state of Kerala. However, although in their faith they share common origins and heritage, the Christians are divided into several denominations.

The denominations include the 3.3-million member Syro-Malabar (Catholic) Church, the Orthodox Church (with 2.5 million members in several different churches), the Mar Thoma Church (with 800,000 members) and the Syro-Malankara Church, which has 380,000 members and also comes under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church.

All the churches take pride in their apostolic origin. Thomas, Jesus' "doubting" apostle, is believed to have arrived on the Arabian Sea coast of Kerala and died a martyr 20 years later in what now is the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu.

The church that traced its foundation back to Thomas was united until a revolt against the Portuguese missionaries in the 17th century. But even today, members of all these churches have much in common and are frequently described as "Hindu in culture, Oriental in worship and Christian in faith."

"Here's a vibrant apostolic church with a common history and heritage divided into several camps," according to K. M. George, a leading Orthodox theologian and principal of the Theological Seminary of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church at Kottayam in central Kerala.

Until 1653, he told ENI, "there was only one St. Thomas church" that had planted "deep roots in Indian culture assimilating [local] Hindu practices and traditions."

According to church historians, the church founded by Thomas developed a distinct identity over the centuries, assimilating Hindu traditions and practices into Christian and church life while following Oriental worship, under the jurisdiction of Persian bishops.

Thus, church feasts and fasts, marriage ceremonies, rites associated with birth and death, the training of clergy and the administration of the churches all became influenced by Hindu customs. For example, rather than giving a wedding ring, the bridegroom ties a "tali"—a tiny golden cross resembling a Hindu wedding mark—around his bride's neck. Similarly, Hindu fertility rites take place during the reception after the church marriage ceremony.

And Christian fasts here are observed with Hindu austerity—church members give up even milk and eggs during Lent. In a land where kneeling is not the general practice for worship, St. Thomas Christians prefer sitting, squatting or standing.

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Indian influence is evident in the given names of church members. Popular names include Thoma instead of Thomas, Ouseph instead of Joseph; Devassy for David; Mariam and Mariamma for Mary; and Annama for Anne.

When the Portuguese established themselves in India in the 16th century, they found the church in Kerala as an administratively independent entity. By the end of the century, the St. Thomas Christians had been brought under Catholic rule. But disaffection soon set in among many Kerala Christians, and in 1653 many of them broke away from Rome and took a collective oath at the Coonen Cross in Mattancherry—near the historic port of Cochin—resolving to preserve the faith and autonomy of their church and to elect its head.

The local Christians who remained loyal to Rome eventually became known as the Syro Malabar church. Those who had risen in revolt in 1653 came into contact with the Patriarch of Antioch, becoming known as Jacobites or Orthodox Christians.

However, with the passage of time, the Orthodox community underwent further divisions. The arrival in the 19th century of British missionaries, representing Anglican evangelicalism, led to the formation in 1889 of a "reformed" church—the Mar Thoma Church—strongly influenced by Anglicanism, with which the Mar Thoma Church has now been in full communion for many decades. It now has 800,000 members.

Another division within the Orthodox community in 1912 produced two Orthodox churches: the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church. At issue was whether the Orthodox Church should remain under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Antioch, which was opposed by those within the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church.

Then in 1930, yet another group broke away from Orthodoxy and joined the Catholic Church, while retaining the Orthodox liturgy. This group, with 380,000 members, is known as the Syro-Malankara Church.

"We do have a common history and background," the Syro Malabar Church's Archbishop Joseph Powathil of Chenganacherry told ENI.

A former president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, Archbishop Powathil said that the different churches belonging to the St. Thomas tradition expected that one day they would again be in communion. "That's why the ecumenical movement is on," he added.

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For more than a decade, with Vatican approval, the Syro Malabar Church has been in regular dialogue with the Orthodox Church. The archbishop also pointed out that his church was holding "serious dialogue" with the Mar Thoma Church "for better understanding."

At the same time urgent efforts are underway in Kerala to unite the two factions of the Malankara Orthodox Church—one loyal to Catholicos Baselios Marthoma—Mathews II in Kottayam, and the other under the direct jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Antioch.

Speaking to ENI at his office in Kottayam, Metropolitan Thomas mar Thimotheos of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church—known as the "Patriarchal faction"—said that the factionalism in the Orthodox Church was based only "on the question of jurisdiction."

"We [both factions] have the same liturgy and faith. The only difference is in jurisdiction and hierarchy," Mar Thimotheos said.

K. V. Mathew, a senior priest of the Mar Thoma Church, said that the various St. Thomas churches had "many things in common because we all belong to the family of Syrian [Oriental] churches."

(From the fourth century until the arrival of the Portuguese, St. Thomas Christians were in regular contact with the Assyrian church, also known as Chaldean church. Bishops for the Indian church came from the Chaldean church in Persia.)

"Despite our theological and jurisdictional differences, all these churches have almost similar worship," pointed out Mathew, former principal of Mar Thoma Theological Seminary in Kottayam.

Mathew also pointed out that although the Mar Thoma Church followed "Anglican theology," the years of dialogue between his church and the Orthodox Church showed that "we have more things that unite us than what divides us."

"It should be ideal for us to form a communion of churches in mar Thoma [St Thomas] tradition," said Mathew, referring to the churches' "apostolic origin, common history, similarity in worship and cultural affinity."

Mathew told ENI that given the basic unity between them, the St. Thomas churches could form a "council of churches in the St. Thomas tradition" while retaining their hierarchical differences until they were resolved.

K. M. George agreed, stating that these churches "can definitely come together to form a united forum—if not a united church—maintaining their separate identities."

The St. Thomas churches, he said, "constitute a single vibrant church and community. If they come closer, churches can be much more effective in their mission," George added.

Copyright © 2000 ENI.

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