As Kerala church factions get into ugly spat, 95-yr-old's funeral left in limbo

The grandson of the deceased was supposed to conduct the last rites, but was allegedly stopped from entering the cemetery as he is a Jacobite priest.
As Kerala church factions get into ugly spat, 95-yr-old's funeral left in limbo
As Kerala church factions get into ugly spat, 95-yr-old's funeral left in limbo
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The funeral of a 95-year-old man is in a limbo as the fight between two factions of the Malankara Christians -- the Malankara Orthodox Church and Jacobite Syrian Church -- continues, with the matter now being taken to the streets. Varghese Mathew Pallikalethu, a Jacobite, passed away on November 3, but his family is yet to give him a burial because of the friction between the two church groups.

The conflict, however, is not new. It has been going on for over a century. After the case reached the Supreme Court, the court ruled in July 2017 that complete power rests with the Orthodox Church.

Varghese's funeral was to be held at his parish, the Kattachira St Mary's Church in Kayamkulam on Thursday. But the situation came to a head when Varghese’s family members, including his grandson Fr Georgy John, reached the church for his burial.

Members of the Orthodox faction, Additional District Magistrate Abdul Salam and the police allegedly denied Fr Georgy John -- Varghese’s grandson and the priest who was to conduct the last rites -- entry into the cemetery as he was in the cassock, an ankle-length garment worn by certain factions of the clergy. The Orthodox faction's contention is that a Jacobite priest cannot be given the authority to conduct the ceremony in their church.

Varghese’s relatives and other followers of the Jacobite Church opposed the decision and conducted a 10-hour long protest at Kayamkulam’s KP road on Thursday.

However, Varghese’s funeral could not be conducted still. The body is kept at his residence in a mobile mortuary.

In order to avoid a law and order situation, the ADM and police decided to take the body into custody, leaving the Jacobite faction with no option but to cancel the funeral and take the body back home. Alappuzha District Collector S Suhas imposed section 144 in the Kattachira area till November 27, and called a meeting of the two factions on Friday to resolve the issue. However, the talks failed.

“It is my family's wish that I do the funeral rituals for my grandfather. But the officials and the Orthodox faction denied me entry into the cemetery in the cassock. We agree that the Supreme Court order is favourable to the Orthodox church. But, how do you deny natural justice with the label of the court order?,” Fr Georgy John told TNM.

The family then approached the State Human Rights Commission and sought help in order to conduct the burial, and Fr Georgy John filed a complaint

“Varghese Mathew (94), Pallikalethu house, Kattachira who expired on 3.11.2018. Is a parishioner of St. Mary's Church, Kattachira. His wife who expired already was buried in the Cemetery of the above Church. For the family members of the deceased, they have already constructed a family vault inside the cemetery and from time immemorial all the members of the deceased who were dead were buried in the cemetery and in their family vault. Since now the same customary right is prevailing and nobody was deprived of enjoying that right. Even now the above right is prevailing and nobody has taken away that right by an appropriate Court Order (sic),” the complaint stated.

After the complaint, the Human Rights Commission ordered the burial be allowed, and added that not doing so would be a “blatant violation of human rights”.

“They shall be allowed to do all religious rituals and formalities in burying the body in the church burial ground, denial of which is nothing but a blatant violation of human rights,” the order stated.  

The Commission also said that the District Collector shall file a report within two weeks, and the ADM concerned shall appear before the commission on November 27.

“The Human Rights Commission issued a favourable order about the issue. We submitted the order to the District Collector, ADM and other police officials. We hope they will take a final solution about this issue," Fr Georgy John said.

However, officials of the Orthodox Church faction alleged that the Jacobite Church faction is creating problems and violating the order of the Supreme Court.

“A recent Supreme Court verdict clearly said that the Kattachira St. Mary’s Church is under the Orthodox Church. But, the Jacobite faction will not approve of the court verdict and are creating issues. Presently, the church is under police protection. No mass or other rituals are being conducted inside the church,” said Fr Johns Abraham Konattu, the PRO of the Malankara Orthodox Church.

“After the court verdict, burials of two Jacobite members were successfully conducted in the Kattachira church. We will not allow priests from the Jacobite faction to lead the burial. But, the family and some members of the Jacobite faction are trying to create problems because of the funeral. We will not allow the entry of the Jacobite priests in the cemetery,” Fr Konattu added.

Fr Johns Abraham Konattu also refuted the claims that the church has received an order from the Human Rights Commission. "The Jacobite faction is spreading fake news that there is an order from the Humans Rights Commission to bury the body. They tried to mislead the Commission and get an order to conduct the rituals as per their customs. However, the Commissioner has directed the Regional District Officer to conduct the funeral as per the law. Despite repeatedly informing that there are rightful priests to conduct the funeral, this faction has been trying to bargain instead," he said in a press release.

Former Jacobite Church spokesperson Fr Varghese Kallappara told TNM, "It is every person's right to get their last respects as per their last wish. Denial of burial rights is basically against the law. But, a group from the Orthodox faction is trying to create issues. The Jacobite Church leadership has failed to assure their spiritual rights to members of its community." 

The same sentiment is echoed by Fr Sleeba Paul Vattavelil Cor-Episcopa, former managing committee member of the Jacobite Church. “The Orthodox factions and officials advised the priest to enter the cemetery without the cassock. How can we agree to directions like this? To do the last rites, the grandfather has a right to a priest. We can’t ruin our beliefs,” he said.

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