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Indian archbishop denies contempt of court in marriage case

An Indian archbishop has denied contempt of court in a civil case sparked by an ancient Catholic community’s unique marriage customs.

 In a 14-page submission to the High Court in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Archbishop Mathew Moolakkatt insisted that he had “neither intended to act nor acted in defiance of court orders at any point in time.”

The head of the Knanaya Catholic Archeparchy of Kottayam was responding to a petition filed at the high court Aug. 25 by a lay member of the archeparchy, which is part of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, the second-largest of the 23 autonomous Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome. 

Justin John, a 31-year-old auto-rickshaw driver, filed the petition after the archeparchy failed to grant him a “vivaha kuri,” or consent letter, allowing him to retain his membership in the archeparchy after marrying Vijimol Shaji, a Catholic belonging to the Syro-Malabar Archeparchy of Tellicherry.

John accused both the archbishop and a local pastor of contempt of court, since a lower court in Kerala ruled in 2021 that members of the archeparchy should no longer forfeit their membership when marrying Catholics outside the Knanaya Catholic community.

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The Knanaya people are an ethnic group tracing their origins to Jewish Christians who migrated from Mesopotamia to India in the 4th century. As membership in the Knanaya community is determined by family lineage, Knanaya Catholics are expected to marry someone within the same community, a norm known as endogamy.

The Kottayam archeparchy was established in 1911 exclusively for Knanaya Catholics. If members wed a Catholic from another diocese, they are no longer considered part of the archeparchy.

Archbishop Moolakkatt contested the 2021 ruling, arguing that it could potentially “overturn and uproot the practice and custom followed in the Knanaya community for over 17 centuries.”

The Kerala High Court agreed to hear an appeal, but reaffirmed an interim order March 10 that the archeparchy should issue a consent letter — also known as a “no objection certificate” (NOC) — to any member who wishes to marry a Catholic from another diocese.

John had scheduled his wedding for May 18 at his bride’s church, St. Xavier’s in Kottody, believing that his pastor would grant him a consent letter. 

But John did not receive the document from Fr. Sijo Stephan, the pastor of St. Anne’s Knanaya Catholic church in Kottody. This meant that the couple were restricted to a symbolic exchange of garlands in front of the church before a reported 1,000 guests

In his Oct. 25 submission to the High Court, Archbishop Moolakkatt denied that the archeparchy had failed to grant a vivaha kuri, arguing that John had not met the criteria for marriage.

He said that John had not undergone pre-marital counseling at his own church or requested to undergo it at another parish, as required by the archeparchy.

He also claimed that John had appeared before his pastor “with police escort” on the eve of the scheduled wedding, seeking a vivaha kuri. The archbishop said that at this point, the priest sought to establish whether John had received pre-marital counseling.

“The issue involved was a sensitive one,” he said. “There was a requirement to abide by court orders and also canonical prescriptions. Any hasty action on behalf of the Church was not possible.” 

He added: “The attempt of the petitioner to coerce the Church with police force at a late hour on 17.05.2023 to forthwith issue an NOC for enabling a marriage to be solemnized on 18.05.2023 was illegal and unfortunate.”

The archbishop, who has led the Kottayam archeparchy since 2005, described the incident as a “stage-managed affair” intended to damage the archeparchy’s image, noting that had prompted news reports, as well as coverage on social media.

Supporters of changes to the archeparchy’s marriage rules told The Pillar Oct. 31 that it would be unfair to hold John responsible for the widespread interest in the case as he has never been involved in any media coverage.

In his submission, Archbishop Moolakkatt also insisted that he was not directly responsible for issuing marriage consent letters.

“The NOC is issued at the individual parishes by the vicar or other authorized person," he said. “The Archeparchy of Kottayam and its archbishop do not directly issue any NOC in connection with the conduct of a marriage.” 

“The allegation that the Archeparchy of Kottayam and its archbishop are attempting to wriggle out of the responsibility to ensure compliance with the interim order issued by this Hon’ble Court is not correct and is denied.”

Fr. Sijo Stephan is yet to submit a response to the contempt of court claim but is expected to do so before the next hearing, scheduled for Nov. 14.

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