Ancient Christians, Modern Mission

Southists in Kerala, India, provide social services to all regardless of caste or creed.

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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It is Good Friday in Kottayam, a city in the southern Indian state of Kerala. A family of Christians gathers to bless a plate of fresh, unleavened rice bread. The head of the household reads from a prayer book written in Malayalam, the vernacular of Kerala. On the cover the Hebrew word for Passover is embossed in gold. By tradition, the youngest member of the family asks the eldest the significance of unleavened bread. He is told how their ancestors, the Jews, fled Egypt in haste and how they had only enough time to prepare unleavened bread.

Before sharing their Passover bread, these Christians greet each other, exclaiming, “Happy Pessaha!”

This Indian Christian family traces its origins to those Jewish Christians who immigrated to India from Mesopotamia in the fourth century. Rooted in the past by cherished traditions, they belong to a dynamic community – the Southists, or Knanaya – a group vital to the mosaic of modern India.

Among the Christians of southern India, explains Father Jacob Kollaparambil, a Southist scholar and Vicar General of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Kottayam, there are two ethnically distinct communities, the Northists and the Southists:

“The Northists are the descendants of those families who were first evangelized by the Apostle Thomas as well as those who have since embraced Christianity. The Southists trace their origins to 72 Mesopotamian Christian families who settled in Cranganore in 345 A.D.”

Southists now number about 200,000 people, a minority within the whole Thomas Christian community of some 4.5 million people (Thomas Christians describe the descendants of those Christians – now members of several Eastern churches – evangelized by Thomas the Apostle). A Semitic people who have maintained their identity by avoiding intermarriage, the Southists are nevertheless divided into two distinct ecclesial jurisdictions. About two-thirds belong to the Eparchy of Kottayam, a diocese of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. The remaining third are in communion with the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, who established a Southist eparchy in Chingavanam in 1910.

In 1990, Father Jacob and Mar Kuriakose Kunnacherry, Bishop of Kottayam, traveled to Iraq to learn more about their ancestors.

“About 24 miles south of Baghdad, between the ancient Persian capitals of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, was situated the Catholicosate [or patriarchal seat] of the Church of the East, an ancient church that developed from the Jewish-Christian community founded by the Apostle Thomas,” reports Father Jacob.

This church (historically referred to as the Nestorian Church), while a minority in Mesopotamia, nevertheless flourished; at its height in the 14th century, the church maintained eparchies in China, India, Mongolia and Tibet.

In the fourth century, the priest continues, the Catholicos of the East, hearing of the languishing state of the church in southern India, asked a merchant named Thomas Knaniya to organize a group of Christians, led by a bishop, Mar Joseph of Uraha, and a handful of priests and deacons, to bolster the community.

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Tags: Education Kerala Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Immigration Southists