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The Koonen Cross Oath

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 [1] (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, out of a population of 200,000 St. Thomas Christians, only 400 remained loyal to the Roman Arch bishop Garcia. The event in 1653 broke the fifty four year old yoke of Roman supremacy imposed at the Udayamperur Synod [2] of 1599.

The Mattanchery incident has been narrated by “a priest named Abraham from the Jacobite point of view to W.A. Mill” in 1821 and cited by W.A. Mill” in his work “The Early Spread of Christianity in India (pp 50-53). The narration is reproduced below:
“In the year 1653, our Father Ignatius, Patriarch of Antioch came to Mylapore. Two deacons went from Malabar to the Church of Mylapore in order to worship before the grave of St. Thomas, the Apostle.

When our Father Mar Ignatius saw the deacons, and recognized them, he wept; and they also wept with him. This scene having been noticed by the Franks, they set up watchmen over them, in order to impede the deacons from seeing and speaking to our Father Mar Ignatius; there was no bishop from our own race, and they were the masters of the dioceses of India. Once, however, our Father Mar Ignatius made a secret sign to the deacons, and granted them a letter of recommendation to elect bishop, the Archdeacon Thomas, and gave them leave to depart. When the deacons reached Malabar, they delivered the Patriarchal letter to the Archdeacon Thomas, who despatched letters to this effect to the churches. When all the priests, deacons, and Christian laymen of Malabar came to him, and heard our Father Mar Ignatius, had arrived at the fortress of Cochin, they repaired’ there without delay and implored the pagan king of Cochin to summon their Father Mar Ignatius, and deliver him to them. The king answered them: ‘To-morrow I will summon him and deliver him to you.’ This, however, became known to the Franks who gave much money to the king of Cochin, and he permitted them to do as they wished.

In that very night, the Franks tied a large stone round the neck of the blessed Patriarch, and threw him in to the depth of the sea. The moment the blessed Patriarch died, the pagan king also died. After these events, all the Syrian parties assembled in the church of Mattanchery, and each one of them swore in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, that they will have no more love for, nor union and communion with the Franks and they established Archdeacon Thomas, the head of all the churches of the Syrians, in accordance with the order of our Father the Patriarch Ignatius. After this, in the year 1660, Bishop Joseph came to Malabar, but we did not follow him. A short time after this, Bishop Joseph called a priest named Alexander from the family of bishop Thomas, and by fraud and deceit he persuaded him to receive Episcopal ordination; this divided the Syrians of Malabar into two camps.”5

E. R. Hambye has referred to the letter6 which was claimed to have been written by Mar Aithalaha (Ahatalla) to Archdeacon Thomas Palliveetil leader of St. Thomas Christians. The letter reproduced by M.K. Kuriakose is as follows:

“In the name of the eternal essence of the Almighty, The Patriarch of the Holy Thomas the Apostle. The peace of God the Father, and the blessing of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit-Hereby, I, Ignatius Patriarch of All India and China, send you a letter through some deacons who came here from your place. After having read the letter with care, send me two priests and forty men. In case you send them, do it with prudence, as well as soon as possible. For, if these here see you, they will let them go without obstacle. Come, sons, listen to me and learn from me for all power was given to me by the Lord Pope i.e. Ignatius is endowed with all power. Therefore, do not be afraid because I have come having many treasures and a lot of other riches, according to your needs. Therefore, try your best to bring me to you, in the name of Mary, the Mother of God, your priests and deacons of the holy flock, as well as all the leaders. And know that I came to Mylapore city, because I learned that several men and priests used to come here who could bring me to your region of the Indies. In the year 1652, I arrived at Mylapore on August the 2nd. To the monastery of the Jesuits i.e.(text illegible). 1 live in the same monastery, and they treat me very well may their generosity increase all over.

Peace be with them, with you and with us for ever. Amen. (Signed) Ignatius Patriarch of India and China.”7

Western historians have tried to identify the credentials of Ahatalla [3] whom the Malankara Christians believed to be Patriarch from Antioch on the strength of the personal witness of the two deacons who met him at Mylapore and the letter he wrote and handed over to them. Dr. Malancharuvil has reproduced a letter purported to be from Mar Ahatalla which has much variations from what referred to by Bishop L. W. Brown. In the letter, Ahatalla put his position as I, Ignatius, Patriarch, of all India and China”. Ignatius is the title of Patriarchs of Syrian Church, not of the Popes of Rome or of any other Church. India and China were known to the Chaldean Patriarch and the Maphrian of Tigris. The claim of Patriarch of Antioch as Patriarch of India and China is, however, not true to reality.

It also advises the Malankara Christians to “proceed according to the rite of the holy Roman Church”. At the same time it does not refer either to the retention by the Jesuits or to the call to make preparations to release him when he arrives at Cochin. On the whole, the letter quoted by Malancharuvil does not agree with the Kerala tradition on many points and hence it is open to question. A copy of this letter is at Appendix.II.

The Orthodox Church of Syria, however, does not reckon Mar Ahatallah as the Patriarch of Antioch. Neither was there any Patriarch of his name nor had any Patriarch of his name died in 1653 or near about that year. The Patriarch in 1653 according to the Syrian Church was Simaun (1640-59), the 124th Patriarch *8

Mar Thoma I

The aggrieved Christians assembled at Alangad near Angamalee on May 22, 1653 and raised their leader Arch Deacon Thomas Parampil as the head of the Church with the title of Mar Thoma (1) n the strength of Mar Ahatallah’s letter. It is said that twelve priests consecrated him by imposing their hands.

At the assembly, a Committee of four priests namely, Kadavil Alexander Kathanar of Kadamattom, Abraham Thomas Kathanar of Kallicherry (Aanjilimoottil Itty Thomman)9, George Kathanar of Vengur and Palliveetil Alexander Kathanar of Kurvilangad, was appointed to assist Mar Thoma I.

Carmelite Mission

On hearing these developments, Pope Alexander VII was vexed and tried to reconcile Mar Thoma to Arch Bishop Garcia. Also, “Two Apostolic Commissaries Guissepe a S. Maria a.C.D. (known to the Christians of Malabar as “Sebastiani”) and Hyacinth (Giacinto) de Vicentio were sent to Malabar by the Roman Congregation of Propaganda Fide endowed with special powers from Pope Alexander VII to investigate and settle the matter. *10 But the efforts proved futile.

In the meanwhile, Garcia had influenced the Raja of Cochin and Raja of Purakkad to issue specific orders that the Syrian Christians should submit to none other than himself. Soon after their arrival in 1657, the Carmelite fathers told the Syrian Christians in a conference summoned by them that they have come to set right the grievances which they had written to the Pope and also that “not only was the Archdeacon (MAR THOMA)’s consecration sacrilageous but that all his subsequent acts were null and void. The Syrian Christians replied that the whole matter could be set right by arranging for the proper consecration of Mar Thoma whom the whole community had hosen as their prelate. The missionaries had to reply that this was impossible”.*11

This tactical struggle between the Carmelite Missionaries on one side and Mar Thoma on the other continued for a few years more. “The result of these disputes was to divide tbe Christians of St. Thomas sharply, some remaining loyal to the Holy See, others insisting that the Church must return to its former obedience. In many places the opposing parties resorted to violence.”12 To bring out an acceptable formula for everyone concerned, a meeting was convened at Cochin on September 23, 1657 which was attended by the Carmelite Fathers, the Syrian Christians and the vicar of Arch-bishop and his supporters. “The deposition of Mar Thoma was not discussed; but it was agreed that Fr. Joseph should assume the Govt. of the Christians. Objection was made to this by the Portuguese who said that the Christians must be told to obey the archbishop but this was over ruled and the Christians accepted the Father as their prelate, embraced him and took him back to his house in procession.”13 Fr. Joseph in such circumstances persisted in his efforts to bring a complete acceptance of Pope by the reluctant parishes. These parishes were invited for a final meeting in Co chin in December, 1657 which was represented by forty-four parishes. “The St. Thomas Christians at the meeting then declaring their adherence to Rome, executed a document for Fr. Joseph to take with him (to Rome) explaining why they could not submit themselves to the Jesuit archbishop.”l4

Bishop Joseph

On January 7, 1658 Fr. Joseph left [or Rome and submitted his report to the Pope in due course. The position in Malankara was reviewed. Pope acting wise, consecrated Fr. Joseph as a bishop, for the Romo-Syrians, on December 15, 1658. Bishop Joseph returned to Malankara after three years on May 14, 1661.

During the period Fr. Joseph was away from 1658 to 166 I, the Malankara See was administered by another Carmelite Fr. Hyacinth. He died in 1660 before Bishop Joseph’s arrival. Archbishop Garcia too had expired on September 3, 1659.

With the arrival of Bishop Joseph, there appeared a shirt in the attitude of a good number of Syrian Christians. The Bishop set out on a visitation of the parishes on August 22, 1661 and wherever he went, Bishop Joseph first made the clergy and the parish members take an oath of obedience to the Pope of Rome. Consequently, Kadavil Chandy Kathanar and Palliveetil Chandy Kathanar and eighty two parishes went back to the fold of Roman Catholic Church and only thirty-two parishes remained loyal to the Koonen Kurishu Sathyam. Those who went back to the Roman Catholic fold styled themselves as the Pazhaya koottukar (Members of the Old Faith) in the sense that those who betrayed Mar Thoma disregarding the Koonen Kurishu Sathyam were allegedly adherents of the Roman Catholic Church prior to the episode and called the latter the Puthen koottukar (Members of the New Faith) just because they broke off the Papal yoke and jurisdiction of a bare span of fifty years beginning with Udayamperur Synod of 1599.

Mar Thoma and his supporters, however, stood committed to their integrity. “Neither negotiations, nor threats, nor forcible measures” admits Tisserant, “used by the Portuguese authorities curbed in any way the resistance of the archdeacon’s party”.l5

Arrival of the Dutch and Decline of the Portuguese

At this juncture, the supremacy of the Portuguese in the Indian waters was challenged by the Dutch, another maritime power of Europe. This resulted in the waning of the Portuguese in Malabar also. The Dutch captured Quilon in 1661, Cranganore in 1662 and Cochin in 1663. Immediately after the capture of Cochin, the Dutch ordered all foreign priests and monks in their jurisdiction to leave the country.

First Schism – Romo-Syrians 1663

Before leaving the shores of Cochin, Bishop Joseph consecrated Chandy Kathanar of Pakalomattom family, a cousin of Mar Thoma from Kuravilangad with the title of Alexander de Campo on February 1, 1663. At the consecration of Alexander, Bishop Joseph excommunicated Mar Thoma. This wounded the Syrian Christians and led to a complete separation of those who accepted the Papal supremacy from the mainstream of Syrian Christians of Malabar. Thus, the undivided Malankara Church was divided into two. Those who went to the Roman Catholic faith came to be known as Romo-Syrians.

The Syrian Christians undeterred by the mass betrayal of their brethren, however, were happy at the opportunity to come off the supremacy of Rome and stand independent but still serving the Orthodox faith of Eastern tradition.

The Dutch, who displaced the bigoted Portuguese, were tolerant and fair minded in their religious outlook. The first act they did concerning religion was to order the externment of all foreign priests from Cochin. Thus with the arrival of the Dutch, and the exit of the Portuguese prelates, the Syrian Christians obtained a much needed interval of peace. While the Portuguese had adopted all fair and foul means to prevent bishops of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the Middle East from coming to Malankara, the Dutch actively assisted them.

1. Tisserant: Eastern Christianity. page 51.
2. Brown, L.W. : The Indian Christians of St. Thol_as. page 100.
3. Tisserant: Eastern Christianity. page 79-80.
4. Cyril Malancharuvil : The Syro-Malankara Church (1974). page 10.
5. Kuriakose K.M. : History of Christianity in India Source Materials. pp. 100-1.
6. Hambye E.R.: An Eastern prelate in India, Mar Aitallaha 1652-53.
7. Kuriakose K.M.: History of Christianity in India. Source Materials (48) p:54.
8. Paret: Malankara Nazranikal. Vol. II. ch. 10.
9. Itty Thomman Kathanar belonged to Aanjilimooltil family of Thalavady.Vicar of St. Mary’s Church at Kallissery.
On May 10, 1659, he expired and was buried in the same church premises.
(P.C.Andrews, Malankara Sabha – December 1966 Pp. 9-10)
10. Cyril Malancharuvil : The Syro-Malankara Church (1973) P : 22
11. Brown L.W. : The [ndian Christians of St. Thomas. page 102.
12,13 ibid: pages 104-5. Note: Guiseppe a S. Maria (Fr. Joseph of St. Mary)
14. Brown L.W. : The [ndian Christians of St. Thomas. page 102.
15. Tisserant: Eastern Christianity

The article is the full text of Chapter Six from the Book ‘The Orthodox Church of India’ written by David Daniel