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KOTTAYAM, India (ChurchMilitant.com) - A couple that was denied the sacrament of marriage on racial grounds, despite a high court order, is suing a Syro-Malabar archbishop and priest for contempt of court.
Justin John, a Catholic from the Kottayam archdiocese, filed a contempt of court petition against Abp. Mathew Moolakkatt and Fr. Sijo Stephan in the Kerala High Court on Friday, upping the ante in a 30-year-long battle against the racist practice of "pure blood" Knanaya Catholics.
The Knanaya Catholics, an endogamous group, claim to be the "pure blood" descendants of 72 Jewish Christian families who arrived in India in A.D. 345 from Syria under the leadership of Thomas of Cana, a Syrian merchant.
Laity and clergy who insist on "racial purity" for purposes of sacramental marriage argue that Pope Pius X, through his bull In Universi Cristiani, created the archeparchy of Kottayam in 1911 exclusively for Knanaya Catholics.
Catholics who marry outside the Knanaya community are expelled from the membership of the archdiocese. According to the book Blood Weddings, edited by C. K. Punnen and Lukose Mathew, many Catholics have been expelled on racial grounds in the past decades.
The eparchy does not evangelize or baptize converts to the Catholic Church, so as not to taint the racial purity of its endogamous community with the blood of converts from other communities.
Should a Knanaya Catholic wed a person from outside the community, their children are no longer classified as Knanaya Catholics, and thus are not permitted to marry within the diocese.
If a Knanaya Catholic marries a person from outside the community, their children are no longer considered Knanaya Catholics and hence are not allowed to marry within the diocese.
In April 2021, a court in the south Indian state of Kerala declared the practice of refusing the sacrament of marriage to Catholics outside the Knanaya community illegal and directed the archdiocese not to discriminate against those wishing to marry non-Knanaya Catholics.
"Insisting on endogamy for Church membership is in violation of the religious rights ... under Article 25 of the Constitution of India," the court ruled. "Since the custom of endogamy is not proved to be the custom of baptism, it cannot be used as a criterion for baptism."
"Since the sacrament of marriage between a Knanaya Catholic and a non-Knanaya Catholic is a divine one, it cannot be controlled by a custom or any other regulation by the Church as per canon 1506 (2)," the court added.
Last March, the archdiocese challenged the civil court order in the Kerala High Court, pleading for a stay order. While agreeing to hear the archdiocese's concerns, the high court rejected the appeal and ordered the archdiocese to comply with the lower court's order.
The court ordered the parish priest of St. Anne's Church, Fr. Sijo Stephan, to permit the engagement of Justin John and his bride, Vijimol Shaji (a non-Knanaya Catholic from the archdiocese of Tellicherry) on April 17.
While complying with the court order for the engagement, Fr. Stephan, however, refused to grant permission for the solemnization of John and Shaji's marriage, which was fixed for May 18.
In a symbolic gesture of protest, the couple garlanded each other following the tradition of a south Indian marriage in the presence of over 1,000 invited guests in front of the closed parish church where they were refused the sacrament of marriage.
"I had also approached Moolakkatt much in advance for permission for my marriage; he too did not respond to my requests," John stated, explaining why he was suing the archbishop.
"Their refusal to issue permission for my marriage was a clear violation of a high court order, and thus I filed the contempt case against them," he added.
"If a diocese is counting blood purity from the fourth century, it must be an appendicitis in the Church because the blood must be rotten by now," well-known exorcist Fr. James Manjackal comments tongue-in-cheek on the practice in his essay in Blood Weddings.
"When I came to know that they did not baptize anyone to their fold, I felt angry as it is against the commandment of Jesus, that is, to preach the Gospel and to baptize (Mark 16:15)," writes Fr. Manjackal. "When I realized that this particular diocese grows in number only by births and not by evangelization, the diocese of Kottayam was a riddle for me."
Father Manjackal notes that "the existence of a diocese based on endogamy is ridiculous, and it is a shame for the Church to uphold it today as it stands against God's will and the teaching of Jesus Christ."
"The Catholic Church never permitted a diocese in the world based on blood purity of a race or a tribe. But the diocese of Kottayam is an exception!" he exclaims. "Christians believe that the blood that runs through a baptized Christian is the Blood of Christ that brought salvation and that all have the same blood."
The priest also dismisses the argument of exclusivity based on the bull of St. Pius X, pointing out that it is not an infallible papal pronouncement.
After examining the papal bull, the court rejected the argument that Rome had created the Kottayam archeparchy to protect endogamy. Instead, the court ruled that Pius X issued his decree to end the rivalry between the "Northists" of the Changanacherry diocese and the "Southists" of the Kottayam diocese.
The Global Knanaya Reform Movement, a lay Catholic group, has petitioned the Vatican through India's papal nuncio, Abp. Leopoldo Girelli to intervene and end the diocese's discriminatory practices.
"The resounding silence from both local ecclesiastical authorities and the Vatican, despite multiple letters seeking intervention, has galvanized Justin John's determination to pursue justice through the Indian legal system," GKRM said in a statement.
Father Stephan's refusal to grant the couple permission to marry is part of "a well-orchestrated strategy to discredit the couple and let them give up their demand for intercommunity marriage," remarked Biju Uthup, a retired aeronautical scientist.
Uthup began pioneering the campaign against the practice of "racial purity" over three decades ago after he was denied permission to marry outside the "pure blood" Knanaya community.
In 1986, the Congregation for the Oriental Churches opposed the move to impose endogamy when a special ministry was established in Chicago for migrant Knanaya Catholics.
The Syro-Malabar Church is currently embroiled in a liturgical civil war after priests in the eparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly defied the orders of Abp. Cyril Vasi', Pope Francis' delegate, to adopt the uniform liturgy.