What does Moran Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Antioch of Syria have to do with Assembly elections in Kerala?
In fact, it is a century old dispute about the Patriarch’s authority which is now driving two Christian sects – Orthodox and Jacobite – of central Kerala, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, right in the middle of Vidhan Sabha elections 2021 scheduled for polls on 6 April.
Christians form 18.38 percent of the 3.34 crore population of Kerala. While Catholics form the majority of the Christian population, the Jacobite and Orthodox sects are a small but influential part of the Christian vote.
Priests Who Wooed the BJP
Aged 57-years, Jacobite priest Sleeba Paul Vattavelil was a staunch Congress supporter when he was young. In his teens he was a member of Kerala Students Union, the student wing of Indian National Congress.
But in this assembly election in Kerala, he was planning to contest on a BJP ticket from Piravom, his hometown in Ernakulam district. “It was for our church. Nothing more,” he told The Quint. The Jacobite sect of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, of which he is a trustee, is facing an existential crisis after a 2017 Supreme Court judgement.
If the verdict is implemented, the Jacobites will lose control over all the churches where they have been traditionally worshiping and Orthodox priests will govern these. Around 1,800 churches fall under the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church.
Vattavelil’s political decision has its roots in a 20th Century spiritual battle which erupted within the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church – an ancient, dominant caste Syrian Christian church in Kerala.
A Spiritual Power Struggle
In 1910, a new Patriarch or spiritual head took over the Orthodox Church of Syria. The Patriarch of Antioch and all of East, Abdulla II, removed the Metropolitan or the supreme head of Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, the very year he ascended to power.
The dethroned Metropolitan, rebelled against the incumbent Patriarch and sent word to his predecessor, Patriarch Abdul Mesih. In response, Patriarch Mesih went to Kerala, 'liberated' the Orthodox church from the control of Patriarch Abdulla and created an independent, Malankara Orthodox Church with a Catholicos as its spiritual head.
However, the Jacobite section within the Orthodox church, refused to accept the authority of the Catholicos and decided to remain under the Syrian Patriarch, who is currently Moran Mor Ignatius Aphrem II.
This spiritual battle over the authority of the Patriarch is unresolved even today. The majority Orthodox sect gives the Patriarch only a nominal mention in their 1934 constitution, while the Jacobite sect considers him their supreme spiritual leader.
While the Jacobites accuse the Orthodox Christians of marginalizing them within the church, the latter accuse the Jacobites of refusing to follow their constitution. Both the sects seek control over the Malankara Syrian Orthodox churches and adjoining cemeteries.
‘Vote in the Name of the Church’
The two sects have fought for the control of the churches in India's courts of law as well, for over half a century. In 2017, the Supreme Court after examining petitions filed by both the Orthodox and the Jacobite sects, ruled in favour of the former and handed over control of all churches of the Malakara Syrian Orthodox Church to them.
While the Jacobites have refused to follow the court order, the Orthodox sect wants the order to be implemented. It is here that the BJP has made an entry.
“The Orthodox sect, which forms the numerical majority within the church, have been supporters of the Congress. Former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy belongs to the Orthodox sect. They also have huge financial resources including the funds from Muthoot Finance, whose governing family belongs to the Orthodox sect,” said a source close to the CPI(M).
Having realised that the Congress will not support their claim over the churches where they form the majority, the Jacobites had turned to the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Over the last decade, the Left Democratic government (LDF) had even called for talks between the two sects, with an aim to arrive at an amicable solution acceptable for both.
“But Veena George, who is from the Orthodox sect made an entry into the CPI(M) in 2016. She became an MLA of the party in Aranmula and is believed to have turned the party leadership against the Jacobite sect,” a source close to the CPI(M) said.
As the Jacobites were left with no fruitful political alliance, V Muraleedharan, state in-charge of the BJP in Kerala, made a move. In December 2020, the Jacobites met Narendra Modi.
Soon after, the Jacobites made their political choice clear. “This year we decided that the vote of the sect will be in the name of our church. We had decided that whoever supports our claims over our churches will get our support,” Vattavelil said.
The BJP meanwhile, held a survey in five constituencies in Kerala where the Jacobites are in majority. “We were ready to let the lotus bloom in Piravom, Muvattupuzha, Kothamangalam, Kunnathunadu and Perumbavoor. This was for our church. Our church is two centuries old and so is our belief in the authority of the Patriarch. We were ready to go to any length,” Vattavelil said. The community can influence at least 80,000 votes in each of these constituencies, he vouched.
Has Orthodox Church also reached out to BJP?
However, close to the elections in March this year, when a delegation of Jacobite spiritual leaders went to meet Home Minister Amit Shah in New Delhi, he refused to meet them. What changed?
The BJP’s state president K Surendran is contesting from two seats this year—Konni and Manjeswar. In Konni, which is the epicenter of Sabarimala protests, the Orthodox sect has influence.
“We have not told the parishioners to vote for any party. But for those among our fold, this church battle is their everyday reality. They could take independent stands and support a party which has supported the Orthodox sect,” an Orthodox priest, MO John who is also a trustee of the Orthodox sect told The Quint.
The church’s cryptic stand, however, could be beneficial for the BJP, observers said. Did the Orthodox sect give an assurance to the BJP over Konni seat? “We have not promised anyone any support. Neither are we worried that the Jacobites have approached the PM. Can the PM override a Supreme Court judgement?” asked John.
The priest also said that the church is ready to wait. “We know that the Supreme Court judgement cannot be implemented in a hurry. So far, we have got the control of 53 churches. We are ready to wait for gaining control over the rest.”
‘Christian Vote Means Catholic Vote’
Meanwhile, experts observing the election permutations, said that the Jacobite and the Orthodox church are not the major contributor of the Christian vote in Kerala. This restricts their power to some constituencies alone.
“Syro Malabar Catholics form the majority of Christians in Kerala. And their vote this time may shift to the LDF,” a Congress insider rued. While the Catholics of Kerala have been traditionally supporting the Congress, this year, the community seems to have warmed up to the CPI(M) because of their differences with the Indian Union Muslim League.
“In the community, it is now being widely believed that the Muslim political party has more say than the Christians in the Congress. LDF too has been strategically pushing this narrative. This could harm the Congress in at least five districts where Christians form the second largest religious community after the Hindus,” the leader said. Among the Catholics, the Latin Catholics of Kerala who are an OBC section, however, have extended their support to the Congress.
Between the Jacobites, Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Latin Catholics, where will the Christian vote swing this year?