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Legal battle over ancient Catholic group’s marriage rules heats up

A decades-long legal battle over an ancient Indian Catholic community’s unique marriage rules is set to heat up later this month.

Archbishop Mathew Moolakkatt, head of the Knanaya Catholic Archeparchy of Kottayam. Screenshot from @KnanayaRegion YouTube channel. 


The Kerala High Court in southern India is due to hear a case Sept. 27 against Archbishop Mathew Moolakkatt, head of the Knanaya Catholic Archeparchy of Kottayam.  

The archbishop and a pastor in the archeparchy are being accused of contempt of court after a lay member was denied a certificate permitting him to marry a Catholic from another Indian archeparchy, despite a court ruling that the archeparchy should issue the document.


The reason the request was denied is that the Kottayam archeparchy is solely for Catholics belonging to the Knanaya people, an ethnic group that traces its presence in India back to the 4th century.

Membership in the archeparchy is determined by birth into a family with a Knanaya Catholic father and mother. As membership is connected to family lineage, young Knanaya Catholics are expected to marry someone within the same community, a norm known as endogamy. If they wed a Catholic from another diocese, they relinquish their membership in the archeparchy.

But in 2021 a lower court ruled that members of the archeparchy should no longer forfeit their membership when marrying Catholics outside the community, after a petition was filed by a group known as Knanaya Catholic Naveekarna Samithy (KCNS).

After Archbishop Moolakkatt challenged the decision, the Kerala High Court refused in March this year to lift the ruling, but agreed to hear an appeal against it, which is still pending.

That was the situation when Justin John, a 31-year-old member of the Kottayam archeparchy, sought permission to marry Vijimol Shaji, a Catholic in the Syro-Malabar Archeparchy of Tellicherry, after years of seeking a spouse within the Knanaya Catholic community.

Believing that he would receive permission following the KCNS case ruling, John prepared to marry Vijimol. But at the last moment, his pastor refused to give him a “vivaha kuri,” a document indicating that his archeparchy had no objection to the marriage.

The couple were limited to exchanging garlands in front of the church before a reported 1,000 guests

John filed a contempt of court case Aug. 25. A hearing was initially set for Sept. 15, but postponed to the end of the month.

In addition to the contempt case and the KCNS case, there is a third case that was launched by the layman Biju Uthup after he was denied a vivaha kuri by the Kottayam archeparchy in 1989.

On Sept. 8, a judge ordered that the Biju Uthup case be heard along with the KCNS case in a joint proceeding.

A Sept. 14 press release from the Global Knanaya Reform Movement (GKRM), which is opposed to the existing marriage rules, said that following the linking of the two cases, “the legal landscape becomes even more complex as the evidence in each of the cases can be useful to the other case, making it next to impossible for the Kottayam Diocese to reverse the case in their favor.” 

It added: “The outcome of these proceedings will have profound implications for the community’s future, challenging deeply ingrained unchristian apartheid practices that have persisted for generations.” 

Supporters of the marriage rules say that they are a time-honored means of holding the small community together. 

They also argue that it’s reasonable to expect a Knanaya Catholic who marries outside the community to join a local non-Knanaya parish since the Kottayam archeparchy has no pastoral jurisdiction over non-Knanaya spouses and their children. They believe that this does not amount to expulsion from the archeparchy. 

They also suggested that India’s civil courts are overreaching by seeking to adjudicate on the internal matters of a religious community.

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Meanwhile, the GKRM has appealed to the Vatican to intervene in the case of Justin John.

In a July 10 letter to Cardinal-elect Claudio Gugerotti, prefect of the Dicastery for Eastern Churches, the organization said that John and Vijimol wanted to “establish a family life within the sanctity of sacramental marriage.” 

“Regrettably, the stringent application of endogamy practices by the Kottayam Diocese has inhibited this, leaving them in a civil union that contradicts their deeply held Catholic beliefs,” said the letter, signed by Biju Uthup, the GKRM’s vice president.

“This circumstance not only imposes personal hardships on the couple but also intensifies divisions within our Knanaya community.”

The letter went on: “I respectfully urge you to guide the Syro-Malabar Church authorities to engage in a sincere and compassionate dialogue with the couple, seeking a resolution that recognizes their rights as Catholic members of the Kottayam Diocese and our Knanaya community.”

While the Kottayam archeparchy is part of the Syro-Malabar Church — the second-largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome — it also has personal jurisdiction over Knanaya Catholics who are members of the Syro-Malankara Church, a smaller Eastern Catholic Church in India.

Knanaya Catholics trace their roots to a group of Jewish Christians who, according to tradition, migrated from Mesopotamia to southern India in 345 A.D., led by a merchant known as Thomas of Kinai, from where the name “Knanaya” comes.

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