Knanaya Church cannot oust people for marrying outside community: Kerala court

Calling it ‘forced endogamy’, the petitioners stated that the consequences of expulsion from the Knanaya Church are devastating.
Representative image of a Christian wedding
Representative image of a Christian wedding
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In a significant judgement, a Kerala court recently ruled against the Knanaya Catholic Church’s practice of ousting members for marrying outside their community. The practise followed by the Knanaya Catholic Church of the Archeparchy of Kottayam, was termed a violation of the fundamental right to marry (under Article 21) and the right to religion (under Article 24) as written in the Indian Constitution, the Additional Sub Court of Kottayam said.

The Knanaya Catholic Church upholds the practice of endogamy, and followers have been known to be ousted from the community if they marry outside of it, even followers of other Catholic Christian churches. This was challenged by Knanaya Catholic Naveekarana Samithy, who are a group of reformists, along with people who have faced similar expulsion. The petitioners had, in their plea, asked to stop the practise of ousting Knanaya followers for marrying people belonging to other Catholic Churches. Members of the Knanaya community consider themselves to be descendants of Jews who migrated to Kerala. As per the church, they uphold endogamy or practise of marrying from within the same community, to continue the community's “pure lineage”.

In the judgement passed on April 30, Sudheesh Kumar S, Additional Sub Judge of Kottayam, restrained the Metropolitan Archbishop of the Archeparchy of Kottayam and the Major Archbishop of the Syro Malabar Major Archiepiscopal Church (under which the former belongs), from terminating the membership of any member of the Archeparchy of Kottayam for marrying a Catholic from any other Diocese. The court also ordered the church to readmit all those who were expelled by the church, their spouses and children, “if they qualify other respects on receipt of proper application”.

“Forced endogamy”, say petitioners

Calling it a ‘forced endogamy’, the petitioners stated that the consequences of expulsion from the church were devastating. “When the membership is terminated, they have no other Church to go to. The spiritually orphaned members are even being denied the right for burial in the tombs where their parents and forefathers are laid to rest. Children adopted by couples are denied membership in the Parish,” the petitioners reportedly stated. Astonishingly, the church also denies membership to children of Knanaya families who are born through surrogacy.

The petitioners also add that hundreds of youngsters following the Knanaya faith remain unmarried due to the fear of expulsion from the church. “The sudden dismissal without any sanction of law, consideration or compensation for services and wealth created in the Dioceses by a member and their devotion to faith and institution of Church got smashed,” they said. Notably, the petitioners also argued that the Knanaya Catholic Church is headed by the Pope, and questioned why the Knanaya faith should have special rules which Catholic churches under Rome do not have.

Though the Knanaya Church argued that the community is a ‘religious denomination’ and endogamy is a ‘religious custom’ that they have been practising for hundreds of years, the court stated the arguments did not stand ground. Assessing various arguments and evidence submitted by petitioners and the church, the court ruled that the practise of endogamy cannot be termed a ‘custom’, and also said that Knanaya Catholic is not a separate religious denomination.

“Jesus stood for unconditional love”

Though the Church cited various religious texts to defend endogamy as a ‘custom’, this was rubbished in the court. The court observed that the Knanaya Catholic church, like other Catholic churches, believes in Jesus Christ and his gospels which do not endorse dividing people.

“On going through the Bible, Canonic Laws and articles of faith, it is brought out that Jesus Christ identified the Supreme Cosmos in all human beings. As a result, to him there was no longer any distinction between Gentiles and Jews, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarians, savages, slaves and free men. He found Christ in everything and in everybody. The defendants (Knanaya church) are admittedly bound to abide by the Bible, the New Testament and Article of faith being the last words of religion. Divine law did not recognise the practice of endogamy as an essential practice conducive to the religious well being of Christians. Jesus Christ advised his followers to be remain without any discrimination in their mind and to accept God in the form of unconditional love. So the discrimination through endogamy cannot be considered as a religious affair of second defendant or Knanaya Catholic,” the court observed.

It further added, “How can a Catholic Diocese expel its members if their teacher (Jesus Christ) had the view, “Everyone whom my father gives me will come to me. I will never turn away anyone who comes to me, because I have come down from heaven to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me” not answered and explained before court.”

The court also added that the practise of compulsive endogamy “is in violation of the right to marriage enshrined in Article 21 (Protection of life and personal liberty) of the Indian Constitution, which can simultaneously be recognised as a common law right and a fundamental right.” The forfeiture of membership for violating endogamy is a violation of the right guaranteed under Article 25 (freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion) of the Indian Constitution, court added.

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