THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, Kerala — T.O. Joseph, a retired primary school headmaster, remembers everything about the day he was excommunicated from his very small Catholic community, the Knanaya Church in Kerala, for marrying a woman who was from a different church.
It was a pleasant summer day in 1977, and Joseph was delivering invitations to friends in his native town of Cherthala, two days before his wedding. His father, who was at home, received a letter from the parish vicar, saying that the Knanaya Church had decided to expel Joseph because he was marrying a woman from outside the community.
In the decades that followed, Joseph, his wife, and their children were prevented from attending religious and social gatherings of the Knanaya Church, including marriages and funerals of his relatives. He was not permitted to enter the cemetery where his parents are buried. His children were denied catechism classes.
“We have suffered a lot. It created divisions within the family. It is a punishment without logic and shows the community in a poor light,” he said.
Knanaya Church, with its archdiocese in Kottayam, 128 parishes, 1,67,500 members, and 218 priests and nuns, remains obsessed with “purity,” practising endogamy, marrying within one’s own community, and excommunicating those who marry non-Knanayas, even if they are Catholics.
The Knanaya Church says that Knanaya Christians trace their origin to 72 Jewish-Christian families who arrived in central Kerala in 345 AD, led by a merchant named Thomas of Kinai of Mesopotamia.
“We do not marry outside the community and do not promote any marriages outside the community. Our ancestors came to Kerala with their bishop, priests, and deacons. We have maintained our purity of race for the last 1,660 years,” said George Karukaparambil, the Public Relations Officer for the Knanaya Church.
Joseph, who heads the Knanaya Catholic Naveekarana Samithy (Knanaya Catholic Reformation Movement), and is one of three petitioners who moved the additional subordinate court in Kottayam in April 2015, says that 35,000 people have been excommunicated from the Church in the past 25 years because they married outside the Knanaya Christian community.
In April 2021, the additional subordinate court handed down its verdict, banning endogamy and calling for the readmittance for all excommunicated people, but the Knanaya Church has said that it will appeal the order in the Kerala High Court. This is not the first time that the Knanaya Church has shunned change. In 2018, the Knanaya Church dismissed the same demand from the Oriental Congregation in Rome, saying that they would appeal to the Pope.
Excommunication and the humiliation that comes with it has had devastating consequences on people, Knanaya Christians told us. People have suffered physically, mentally, and emotionally, they said. While some pay a small fee to gain admittance in any other Catholic parish, others find themselves questioning their faith. Hundreds of members cannot find spouses and remain unmarried because they fear excommunication, they said.
Endogamy and excommunication lead to absurd situations, the Knanaya Christians said. For instance, when the wife from a different church dies, the husband will be readmitted to the Knanaya Church after submitting a written request that is verified by a church committee. Consequently, his children from the first marriage will belong to one church, while children from a second marriage belong to the Knanaya church. The same rules apply for a woman from the Knanaya Church when her husband dies.
“In letter and spirit, the Knanaya Church is against the Indian Constitution, Catholic Church Canons, and the biblical way of treating humans,” said Joseph.
In letter and spirit, the Knanaya Church is against the Indian Constitution, Catholic Church Canons, and the biblical way of treating humans.
Joseph and Santha
Joseph, now 76-years-old, said that the loss of a community did not hit him in the immediate aftermath of his excommunication in 1977, but it crept up on him as he grew older. The most difficult part of this ordeal was having to witness his wife and children suffer the consequences of excommunication, and not having the power to change anything, he said.
Joseph and Santha Joseph have two children and six grandchildren. Theirs was not a love marriage. It was arranged by their parents.
Santha, a retired physical education teacher, who belonged to Kerala’s Malankara Jacobite Orthodox Syrian Church, said that Joseph’s parents decided to break the strict rules of endogamy because they wanted to find him a woman who matched him in education and social status.
“In those days, well educated Knanaya men and women were a rarity. My husband was a school teacher with higher qualifications,” she said. “When the Church excommunicated him, we decided to go ahead by joining the Syro Malabar Church.”
Jacob said that he could not join Santha’s Jacobite Orthodox Syrian Church because he is a Catholic, and the Jacobite church in Kerala was not accepting new members at the time, especially Catholics.
The excommunication has been so severe that she is still a stranger to most of Joseph’s close relatives, said Santha.
“Excommunication is both religious and social,” she said. “I was never invited for weddings, baptisms and even funerals.”
“We were discriminated against,” said Joseph.
Excommunication is both religious and social. I was never invited for weddings, baptisms and even funerals.
Registered in 1990 under The Travancore-Cochin Literary, Scientific and Charitable Societies Registration Act, 1955, Joseph said that the Knanaya Catholic Naveekarana Samithy has only one objective: “exposing the hollowness of racial purity theories and ending the practice of endogamy prevailing among the Knanaya community.”
The samithy was formed by one O.M. Uthup, who was infuriated after the Knanaya Church denied his son Biju Uthup from marrying outside the community.
In the past three decades, Biju Uthup, who has twice moved the courts against the Knanaya Church, said that his father was the driving force behind his legal battles. He passed away in 2013.
“He became irritated after the Knanaya church turned against me for marrying outside the community. A born fighter, he first pushed me to approach the local court and to strongly defend myself in the High Court when the church went on appeal. It was he who pushed me to file a case against the church for denying baptism to my daughter,” said Uthup. “It was he who floated the samithy by bringing all those excommunicated from the church and advised them to challenge the Knanaya might in court.”
“He was a man of principle and I just followed him,” said Uthup. “It was his dying wish that the fight continues.”
He was a man of principle and I just followed him.
In March 2015, Joseph, his two friends, 65-year-old K Lukose Mathew and 68-year-old C.K. Punnen, and the samithy filed a petition in a subordinate court of Kottayam, asking for a ban on endogamy and readmission of excommunicated people and their families to the Knanaya Church.
“Marriage is one of the seven sacraments established by Jesus Christ. The termination of membership from the community for marrying from another Catholic segment is unholy, unlawful, illegal, inequitable, unconstitutional, unethical, and inhuman,” the petition says.
On 30 April, 2021 the petitioners won, as S Sudheesh Kumar, a subordinate court judge, in his 150 page judgement, said that endogamy was a clear violation of the fundamental rights envisaged in the Indian Constitution, and he ordered for all excommunicated members along with their spouses and children to be readmitted.
The court also observed that retaining blood purity through the illegal policy of endogamy was impossible when Knanaya Christiians adopted a child, opted for surrogacy, or if a child was born to a woman outside of marriage.
“Those people who deny the sacrament of marriage between members of the global Catholic community have no right to claim themselves as the representatives of Christ and upholders of Canon Law,” wrote Judge Kumar. “The practice of enforced endogamy is against teachings of Jesus Christ and Catholic Church. It is also against the Constitution of India and is a violation of basic civil rights and fundamental human rights.”
Those people who deny the sacrament of marriage between members of the global Catholic community have no right to claim themselves as the representatives of Christ and upholders of Canon Law.
The petitioners were Joseph and two of his friends, C.K. Punnen and K Lukose Mathew.
Punnen, who retired as a Major from the Indian Army, is still a member of the Knanaya Church, but he decided to join his friends to fight a system that he believes is discriminatory.
“The Knanaya community is continuing racial discrimination and false notions of purity even in this scientific age. So, I thought of fighting it out as part of my efforts for community reforms,” he said.
The Knanaya community is continuing racial discrimination and false notions of purity even in this scientific age.
Mathew, a retired veterinary doctor, who married a member of the Syro Malabar Church, was excommunicated in 1986.
There were many painful and humiliating moments that followed, but what angers and pains him to this day, was not being allowed to attend the weddings of his three sisters and two brothers.
Mathew said that 35,000 people who had been excommunicated had all rallied behind the samithy, calling for the restoration of community membership and the right to attend religious rituals at Knanaya churches.
“We opted for a legal fight after years of communication with the Vatican, the headquarters of the global Catholic Church, turned futile,” he said.
George Karukamparambil, Public Relations Officer for the Knanaya Church, said that the additional subordinate court’s verdict flies in the face of centuries-old traditions and they would file an appeal against it.
“The verdict is not digestible to all self-respecting members of the community, who consider abiding by traditions and practices as the core of their everyday life,” he said
The petitioners said they would continue fighting against the regressive practices of the Knanaya Church that have no place in the modern world.
“The church is expelling helpless members without considering the moral implications or the psychological and emotional wounds inflicted through their actions,” said Mathew.
The church is expelling helpless members without considering the moral implications or the psychological and emotional wounds inflicted through their actions.
KA Shaji is a journalist based in South India. He writes on human rights, environment, livelihood, caste and marginalised communities.