A legal move by the Orthodox faction is seen as a move to weaken the Jacobite faction and end a peace initiative
The factional fight among two sects of Christians in southern India entered a new phase when one moved a state high court against a law meant to ensure both factions’ burial rights.
Kerala High Court on Feb. 5 admitted a petition from the Orthodox faction of the Malankara Church. It served notices on the state government and the rival Jacobite faction seeking their opinion on the demand to repeal the law.
The state government enacted a law in January 2020 to ensure the burial rights of both factions of Christians in the cemeteries they shared until their dispute worsened some decades ago.
The state’s move came after the warring groups engaged in street fights over denying access to rivals in the cemeteries they occupied.
Orthodox Christians now want the high court to direct the state to repeal the Right to Burial of Corpse in Christian (Malankara-Jacobite) Cemeteries Act, 2020.
A Supreme Court verdict in 2017 gave the Orthodox faction ownership of more than 1,100 churches, lands and cemeteries occupied and controlled by the Jacobite faction. Since then, Orthodox opposition to Jacobite people accessing cemeteries has become fierce, forcing the government to enact the law to establish law and order.
“We indeed respected and followed the law. But now, a year into its implementation, we find that our cemeteries are not safe, nor the tombs of our ancestors in them,” Father Johns Abraham Konat, spokesperson of the Malankara Orthodox Church, told UCA News on Feb. 7.
“First of all, the law is defective. Now the situation is such that anybody can bury their dead in our cemeteries as there is no legal mechanism in place to decide who will allocate the space for burial.
“We only see people bringing bodies covered, not making even faces visible. In certain cases, we are not even sure if it is a body or not. Also, who will certify who is to be buried and the place of burial?
“Even in a public cemetery, there are committees to certify who is to be buried and where it should be done. But complete lawlessness exists in our cemeteries. There were incidents of mobs destroying the tombs of our people.”
However, the Jacobite faction views the legal move as an attempt to weaken them and break ongoing peace talks between the factions initiated by Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
“Unfortunately, they have approached the court about repealing a law that allowed dignified burials for our dead,” Bishop Joseph Mar Gregorios, the metropolitan trustee and senior Jacobite bishop, told UCA News on Feb. 7.
“This is an attempt to weaken us by denying burial ground. It is likely that some Jacobite people can be forced to switch over to Orthodox, citing the control of the cemeteries where their ancestors are buried. We always want a dignified burial in the tombs of our ancestors.
“There was no need to repeal the law. Formation of a legally binding committee could solve all the problems the Orthodox side has raised.”
The Orthodox Church, also known as the Malankara Orthodox Church, was established following a split in 1911 in the indigenous Malankara Church, a branch of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, following factionalism.
The Orthodox faction has its supreme head based in Kerala, while Jacobites owe their allegiance to the Patriarch of Antioch.
In 1934, they came together, agreed on a constitution and elected a Catholicos of the East as the common head. However, in 1973 they split again, each faction taking over properties in areas where they were numerically stable.
Since then, they have been fighting over temporal properties physically and legally. In 2017, the Supreme Court favored the claim of the Orthodox faction based on their 1934 constitution. The constitution agreed that the Patriarch of Antioch has no power over temporal goods of the church.