The Koonen Cross Oath

Written By: on Jan 5th, 2010 and filed under Columns.

Mar Abatalla 1652 A.D

The acts of Archbishop Menezes were undoubtedly high-handed, arbitrary and arrogant. The independence of the ancient Church of Malankara was crudely crushed. But in the long history of the Church, the Papal yoke was only momentary; for, the feelings of resentment and the desire to regain independence among the St. Thomas Christians which were very real, could not be contained for long. The pent-up sentiments were given vent in 1653. They had all along continued their efforts to get a Metropolitan from the Eastern Church for their rescue. The Portuguese who were masters of the sea in those days, many a time intercepted their letters of appeal for Syrian prelates and there were occasions when attempts of Middle Eastern clergy to come to Malankara were physically thwarted. This fact is explicit in Cardinal Tisserant’s own words. The local defectors in the Roman Catholic Seminaries were advised to be “on their guard against the arrival of a bishop sent by the Catholicos of Seleucia. For in spite of the watch set up by the Portuguese at Ormuz and Goa, such an event always remained a possibility”. l However, Metropolitan Mar Ahatalla from Syria is said to have landed at Surat in 1652 and thence came to Mylapore, where he was arrested by the Jesuits on August 3, 1652. While at Mylapore, Mar Ahatalla met two Syrian Christian deacons, viz: Chengannur ltty and Kuravilangad Kizhakkedath Kurien from Malankara who were on a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Thomas and sent a letter through them to the Church of Malankara saying:

“At Calamini, I have been taken prisoner by those whose profession is persecution. Soon they will make me leave for Cochin and then for Goa. Arm up some of your people to save me”.2

In the same letter, Mar Ahatalla is also said to have appointed Archdeacon Thomas as the head of the Malankara Church. As feared, the Metropolitan was taken on board a Portuguese ship at Madras bound for Goa. En route, it touched Cochin. The Syrian Christians heard of the arrival of the ship at Cochin. They marched 25,000 strong to the harbor demanding the immediate release of their Metropolitan. The Portuguese, however, rushed the Prelate to Goa, under cover of darkness, without acceding to their demand. “In order to prevent any attack on the town, they spread the less palatable story that the unfortunate prelate had been accidentally drowned… In the meantime, Ahatalla was condemned as a heretic by the Inquisition of Goa and died at the stake in 1654″.3 Dr. Cyril Malancharuvil gives a different version. To quote: “In a letter written on 3rd January, 1659 to the Pope by Bishop Garzia. He declared that the Syrian bishop died on his way to Rome”.4

It may be interesting to note that the Orthodox Church parish of Mavelikara observe the death anniversary of Mar Ahatalla on January 15 (Makaram 3) every year.

The summary disposal of Mar Ahatalla, however, shocked the Christian community and their wounded feelings effervesced into a mass upsurge which heralded the breaking off from the Papal yoke.

The Sathyam (Oath) 1653

The incident of Mar Ahatalla presented an occasion for the St. Thomas Christians to retaliate. When they came to know that Mar Ahatalla was drowned carried off, they could not tolerate the imperious Portuguese and their arbitrary actions; they assembled in thousands around a big granite cross, the Coonen Kurish (Leaning Cross) in the Mattanchery parish church grounds near Cochin on January 16, 1653 and took an oath to submit no longer to the ecclesiastical authority of Rome and to obey none save their Archdeacon Thomas until they get a bishop from the Eastern Church. The number of people who took part in the Sathyam (Oath) being large, all could not touch the granite Cross at the same time. Therefore, they held on to ropes tied to the Cross in all directions. According to tradition,

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