"I was an atheist. When I became a believer, the church itself became a major hurdle for my faith.”

Representative image of a Christian weddingIMAGE FOR REPRESENTATION (CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / JABEZNELSON )
news Church Friday, June 11, 2021 - 18:27

When Kottayam-native Biju Uthup found his bride in Leena, a girl from his own Knanaya Catholic community, in 1989, he had no idea that it was the start of a legal and ethical battle that would continue for more than three decades. Biju, a project officer at Aeronautical Development Agency in Bengaluru, was denied a 'vivahakuri’ — a consent letter — by the Knanaya Syro-Malabar Catholic Archeparchy of Kottayam. Apparently, some anonymous person had filed a petition with the then-Bishop Mar Kuriakose Kunnassery that Biju could not be permitted to marry from the community because 'his blood was not pure enough'. The reason — his grandmother was not from the Knanaya Catholic community.

The ensuing legal fight was started by Biju's father, the late OM Uthup, who founded the Knanaya Catholic Naveekarana Samiti (KCNS) in 1991, and was continued by TO Joseph. The case raises serious questions over endogamy as well as discrimination by the Knanaya community, which is believed to have migrated from southern Mesopotamia to Kodungalloor in AD 345, under the leadership of a merchant named Thomas of Cana aka Knai Thomman.

Last month, based on a petition filed by TO Joseph on behalf of KCNS, an additional sub court in Kottayam ruled that the practice of expelling members of Knanaya Catholic church for marrying outside the community was unconstitutional. Joseph, and Biju Uthup's daughter, are among the hundreds of people who were denied a membership in their own community because either they or their family members had married Catholics outside the Knanaya community. Though the Knanaya Archeparchy of Kottayam has filed an appeal which is set for hearing on June 19, the order has brought relief to several people who are suffering ostracism from the church in the name of endogamy and purity.

The court accepted the petitioners' argument that practice of compulsive endogamy was a violation of the teachings of the Bible, Canon Laws, Article of faith, Indian Constitution and International Covenants. Citing Supreme Court orders in the Puttaswamy case (Justice KS Puttaswamy (Retd.) and Another v. Union of India and Others) and Hadiya case (Shafin Jahan v. Asokan and Others (2018 (2) KHC 890)), the civil court observed that the right to marriage is the integral part of personal liberty enshrined in the right to life guaranteed under the Constitution, and it should not be curtailed in the guise of custom.

Social stigma

The main petitioner, TO Joseph's association with KCNS began with a print advertisement in 'Malayala Manorama' in 1991. The advertisement was given by OM Uthup, inviting letters from all people who were expelled from the Knanaya community. A school teacher, Joseph had found a suitable bride from another Catholic church and was expelled from the Knanaya community. "Considering my poor financial status and profession, I wanted a bride who was a working woman. Since I couldn’t find a suitable girl, I married a non-Knanite. After that, I was not allowed to go to my church where I grew up,” says Joseph, “The church is not just a religious institution. It is a place to meet your friends and other members of society. Everyone has their own favourite corner in the church. They will turn to the particular corner to have a look or wave at their friend. We can’t find that connection in other churches, where we are just an outsider.”

He adds that it was not just an issue of people choosing to marry outside the community. "Adopted kids of childless Knanaya parents cannot be members. If a person remarries from the community after the demise of a non-Knanite spouse, he/she will be admitted back to the church. But if they have children from the first marriage, they remain outsiders. I have seen the pains of such children. There are several men and women who could not find a suitable partner within the community," Joseph says.

Seeing the overwhelming response to his advertisement, Uthup decided to convene a public meet which was attended by expelled persons like Joseph and also Knanites like PI Jacob, who viewed it as a human rights violation. It marked the foundation of KCNS, which later conducted several public meetings, protests, and fought legal battles to end the practice of expulsion from the church. According to Joseph, rough data collected by KCNS in the early 2000s had found that the Knanaya church had expelled a minimum of hundred persons from each of the 130 parishes under it.

Though the Archeparchy argued in the court that they have never forcefully expelled their members over marriage with other Catholics, the petitioners said those approaching parish priests for ‘vivahakuri’ to conduct betrothal and weddings are made to fill out an application seeking permission to leave the membership. "It is just like handing over a knife to a person and ordering him to kill himself," Additional Sub Judge, Sudheesh Kumar S observed in the ruling.

The Blood Weddings

The petitioners argued in the court that the wrong interpretation of Papal Bull of 1911 enforced endogamy in the community. Quoting historians, the petitioners argued that the community did not practice strict endogamy and even Knai Thoma had a second marriage with a Hindu converted woman, which the Church vehemently denied in court.

The petitioners argued that it was Bishop Kuriakose Kunnachery, who assumed charge in 1974, who began enforcing endogamy, which the petitioners cited as the beginning of a march towards alienation from Catholic teaching, and racial extremism.

In a book titled 'Blood Wedding' published by KCNS, Uthup's wife Annamma gives an emotional narration of the trauma she had to go through after the church denied the ‘vivahakuri’ for her son Biju. Annamma cites incidents where the community members alleged that her family used illegal means to conduct the weddings of their children. Though her mother was a Latin Catholic, Annamma's marriage with OM Uthup was held with consent of Bishop Mar Thomas Tharayil in 1965. The fact that Biju and Leena had to wait for three years to get married and their daughter's baptism was delayed till the age of 10 (Baptism was finally held at a Knanaya church in the US where Biju stayed briefly for his work commitments) had pained Annamma. Despite controversy, Leena and her family stood by Biju and they got married in 1991. As a compromise over the legal battle, their marriage was officiated without expelling the couple from the Knanaya community, but the same rights were denied to their daughter.

Though Biju secured favourable verdicts over his petition against the church's denial of permission for his marriage from Munsif court, district court and the High Court, the church filed a review petition, which is still under consideration in the Supreme Court. Biju's daughter too filed a case for denying her a membership by the Knanaya church.

A separate religious denomination?

The major question raised during the Sabarimala verdict — whether Sabarimala temple could be seen as a separate religious denomination — was raised here too. The Knanaya  Archeparchy of Kottayam asked the court to consider it as a separate religious denomination, which the court rejected citing a lack of a common system of belief. Citing the community's belief in Jesus Christ, the court said that "On going through the Bible, Canonic Laws and Article 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. As Jesus Christ had no discrimination, there is no impediment like endogamy introduced in the Divine Law for sacrament of marriage," the Court noted.

After examining the Papal Bull of 1911, the court rejected the argument that Rome created the Archeparchy of Kottayam as a token for practice of endogamy by the Knanites and observed that the move, instead, was to end rivalry between Changanacherry diocese or Northists people, and Kottayam diocese or Southists people.

Biju, now aged 61, is leading a global fight through Global Knanaya Reforms Movement. "I was an atheist. When I became a believer, the church itself became a major hurdle for my faith. Now, I see all these are the plan of god to bring an end to the racism practised by the church," he says.

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