Coonan Cross Oath
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The Coonan Cross Oath (Koonan Kurishu Satyam), taken on 3 January 1653, was a public avowal by members of the Saint Thomas Christian community of Kerala, India that they would not submit to Portuguese dominance in ecclesiastical and secular life. The swearing of the oath was a major event in the history of the Saint Thomas Christian community and marked a major turning point in its relations with the Portuguese colonial government. The oath resulted directly in the formation of an independent Malankara Church in 1665 AD, with Mar Thoma I as its head, and ultimately in the first permanent split in the community.
The Saint Thomas Christians remained in communion with the Church of the East until their encounter with the Portuguese in 1599. With the establishment of Portuguese power in parts of India, clergy of that empire, in particular members of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), attempted to Latinise the Indian Christians.
The Portuguese started a Latin Rite diocese in Goa (1534) and another at Cochin (1558), and sought to bring the Thomas Christians who were Namputhiri communities, ezhava and Nair Sub castes fully under the jurisdiction of the Portuguese padroado and into the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. The Nambudiri community was at the top of the ritual caste hierarchy and in that system outranked even the kings. Inscriptions on Tarrisapalli copperplate dated approximately 9th-century AD, refer to Nair chiefs and ezhava soldiers from the Venad (later known as Travancore). As these inscriptions show the Nairs as witnesses to the agreements between Assyrian Monks and the successors to the Cheras, the Perumals, it is probable that by this time the Nairs were vassal chieftains and were vaishnavite Christians even after the Soviet revival of early ninth century AD. A series of synods, including the 1585 Synod of Goa, were held, which introduced Latinized elements to the local liturgy. In 1599 Aleixo de Menezes, Archbishop of Goa, led the Synod of Diamper, which finally brought the Saint Thomas Christians partially under the authority of the Latin Archdiocese of Goa.
The acts of Archbishop Menezes were undoubtedly high-handed, arbitrary and arrogant. The independence of the ancient Church of Malankara was crudely crushed. But in the long history of the Church, the Papal yoke was only momentary; for, the feelings of resentment and the desire to regain independence among the St. Thomas Christians which were very real, could not be contained for long. The pent-up sentiments were given vent in 1653. They had all along continued their efforts to get a Metropolitan from the Eastern Church for their rescue. The Portuguese who were masters of the sea in those days, many a time intercepted their letters of appeal for Syrian prelates and there were occasions when attempts of the Middle Eastern clergy to come to Malankara were physically thwarted. This fact is explicit in Cardinal Tisserant's own words. The local defectors in the Roman Catholic Seminaries were advised to be "on their guard against the arrival of a bishop sent by the Catholicos of Seleucia. For in spite of the watch set up by the Portuguese at Ormuz and Goa, such an event always remained a possibility". L However, Metropolitan Mar Ahatalla from Syria is said to have landed at Surat in 1652 and thence came to Mylapore, where he was arrested by the Jesuits on 3 August 1652. While at Mylapore, Mar Ahatalla met two Syrian Christian deacons, viz: Chengannur ltty and Kuravilangad Kizhakkedath Kurien from Malankara who were on a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Thomas and sent a letter through them to the Church of Malankara saying: “At Calamini, I have been taken prisoner by those whose profession is persecution. Soon they will make me leave for Cochin and then for Goa. Arm up some of your people to save me”. 2
In the same letter, Mar Ahatalla is also said to have appointed Archdeacon Thomas as the head of the Malankara Church. As feared, the Metropolitan was taken on board a Portuguese ship at Madras bound for Goa. En route, it touched Cochin. The Syrian Christians heard of the arrival of the ship at Cochin. They marched 25,000 strong to the harbor demanding the immediate release of their Metropolitan. The Portuguese, however, rushed the Prelate to Goa, under cover of darkness, without acceding to their demand. “To prevent any attack on the town, they spread the less palatable story that the unfortunate prelate had been accidentally drowned… In the meantime, Ahatalla was condemned as a heretic by the Inquisition of Goa and died at the stake in 1654″.3 Dr. Cyril Malancharuvil gives a different version. To quote: “In a letter written on 3rd January, 1659 to the Pope by Bishop Garzia. He declared that the Syrian bishop died on his way to Rome”. 4
The Orthodox Church parish of Mavelikara observes the death anniversary of Mar Ahatalla on 15 January (Makaram 3) every year.
The summary disposal of Mar Ahatalla, however, shocked the Christian community and their wounded feelings effervesced into a mass upsurge which heralded the breaking off from the Papal yoke.
On 3 January 1653 Archdeacon Thomas and representatives from the community met at the Church in Mattancherry to swear what would be known as the Coonan Cross Oath. The following oath was read aloud and the people touching a stone-cross repeated it loudly:
- By the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that henceforth we would not adhere to the Franks, nor accept the faith of the Pope of Rome
The incident of Mar Ahatalla presented an occasion for the St. Thomas Christians to retaliate. When they came to know that Mar Ahatalla was carried off and drowned, they could not tolerate the imperious Portuguese and their arbitrary actions; they assembled in thousands around a big granite cross, the Coonen Kurish (Leaning Cross) in the Mattanchery parish church grounds near Cochin on 16 January 1653 and took an oath to submit no longer to the ecclesiastical authority of Rome and to obey none save their Archdeacon Thomas until they get a bishop from the Eastern Church.
The number of people who took part in the Sathyam (Oath) being large, all could not touch the granite Cross at the same time. Therefore, they held on to ropes tied to the Cross in all directions. According to tradition, out of a population of 200,000 St. Thomas Christians, only 400 remained loyal.
The event in 1653 broke the fifty-four-year-old yoke of Roman supremacy imposed at the Udayamperur Synod in 1599.
Various Interpretations of Events
Just like any historical event related to Malabar church each faction keeps its own version of this event.
The taking of the Coonan Cross Oath (Koonan Kurishu Satyam) resulted directly in the formation of an independent Malankara Church, with Mar Thoma I as its head, and ultimately in the first permanent split in the community. Historically the Saint Thomas Christians were part of the Church of the East, centered in Persia, but the collapse of the church hierarchy throughout Asia opened the door to Portuguese overtures. They came into direct communion with the Church of Rome through the Chaldean Patriarchate with the arrival of Mar Joseph Sulaqa and Mar Elias in AD 1554 and with Mar Abraham (died 1599).
With the establishment of Portuguese power in parts of India, clergy of that empire, in particular members of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), attempted to Latinise the Indian Christians. The Portuguese started a Latin Rite diocese in Goa (1534) and another at Cochin (1558), and sought to bring the Thomas Christians fully under the jurisdiction of the Portuguese padroado and into the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. A series of synods, including the 1585 Synod of Goa, were held, which introduced Latinized elements to the local liturgy. In 1599 Aleixo de Menezes, Archbishop of Goa, led the Synod of Diamper, which finally brought the Saint Thomas Christians fully under the authority of the Latin Archdiocese of Goa and replaced traditional East Syrian liturgy with Latinized liturgy. Widespread discontent with these measures led the Saint Thomas Christian community to rally behind Archdeacon Thoma to resist the Portuguese padroado. In 1641, tensions came to a head with the ascendancy of two new protagonists on either side of the contention: Francis Garcia, the new Archbishop of Kodungalloor, and Archdeacon Thoma, the head of the Saint Thomas Christian hierarchy. In 1652 a man named Ahatallah, who claimed to be the rightful "Patriarch of the Whole of India and of China", arrived in India. He was arrested by the Portuguese and was never heard from again in India, starting rumors that he had died or been murdered. This event combined with Francis Garcia's general dismissiveness towards the complaints of the Saint Thomas Christians, led directly to the swearing of the Coonan Cross Oath. On 3 January 1653 Archdeacon Thoma and representatives from the Saint Thomas Christian community met at the Church of Our Lady in Mattancherry to swear what would be known as the Coonan Cross Oath. Those who were not able to touch the cross, tied ropes to the cross, held the rope in their hands and made the oath. Because of the weight it is said that the cross bent a little and so it is known as "Oath of the Bent Cross".
After the Coonan Cross Oath the Portuguese missionaries attempted for reconciliation with Saint Thomas Christians but was not successful. Later Pope Alexander VII sent the Syrian bishop Joseph Sebastiani at the head of a Carmelite delegation who succeeded in convincing the majority of Saint Thomas Christians, including Palliveettil Chandy Kathanar and Kadavil Chandy Kathanar that the consecration of Archdeacon as metropolitan was not legitimate. Later Palliveettil Chandy Kathanar was consecrated as the bishop for the Syrian Catholics with the historic title 'The Metropolitan and the Gate of all India' which denotes a Quasi Patriarchal status with all India jurisdiction.<refref name="Joseph Thekkedathu">Joseph Thekkedathu, pas cite pp96-100</ref> This led to the first permanent split in the Saint Thomas Christian community. Thereafter, the faction affiliated with the Catholic Church under Parambil Mar Chandy was designated the Pazhayakuttukar, or "Old Party", while the branch affiliated with Mar Thoma was called the Puthankuttukar, or "New Party". These appellations have been somewhat controversial, as both groups considered themselves the true heirs to the Saint Thomas tradition, and saw the other as heretical.
Between 1661 and 1662, 84 of the 116 Saint Thomas Christian churches joined this East Syrian Catholic Church, known as the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. In 1665, Mar Gregorios Abdul Jaleel, a Bishop sent by the Syriac Orthodox (West Syrian) Patriarch of Antioch, arrived in India, at the invitation of Thoma. This visit resulted in the Mar Thoma party claiming the spiritual authority of the Antiochean Patriarchate and gradually introduced the West Syrian liturgy, customs and script to the Malabar Coast. The arrival of Mar Gregorios in 1665 marked the beginning of a West Syrian association of the Thomas Christians. Those who accepted the West Syrian theological and liturgical tradition of Mar Gregorios became known as Jacobites and eventually entered into communion with the Syriac Orthodox Church, introduced by Mar Gregorios Abdul Jaleel of Jerusalem. Those who continued with East Syrian liturgical tradition are known as the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in communion with the Catholic Church. They received their own Syro-Malabar Hierarchy on 21 December 1923, with the Metropolitan Mar Augustine Kandathil as the Head of their Church. The Saint Thomas Christians by this process became divided into East Syrians and West Syrians. The split into Syro-Malabar and Malankara factions would be permanent; over the next centuries the Malankara Church would experience further splits and schisms.
- Neutral version
The situation is best explained by the Stephen Neill (an Anglican Protestant missionary, from Scotland) in his book "A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707". "On January 1653, priests and people assembled in the church of Our Lady at Mattancherry, and standing in front of a cross and lighted candles swore upon the holy Gospel that they would no longer obey Garcia, and that they would have nothing further to do with the Jesuits they would recognize the Archdeacon as the governor of their Church. This is the famous oath of the ‘Coonan Cross` (the open-air Cross which stands outside the church at Mattancherry). The Saint Thomas Christians did not at any point suggest that they wished to separate themselves from the Pope. They could no longer tolerate the arrogance of Garcia. And their detestation of the Jesuits, to whose overbearing attitude and lack of sympathy they attributed all their troubles, breathes through all the documents of the time. But let the Pope send them a true bishop not a Jesuit, and they will be pleased to receive and obey him."
- Malanakara Jacobite version (Part of Oriental Orthodox Syrian Church of Antioch following west Syrian tradition):
In response to the continuous appeal of the Thoma Arkadiyakon (archdeacon), who was then giving leadership to Nasrani Church; from the Patriarchate of Antioch came Mor Ignatius Ahattula in 1653. The tradition is that the Portuguese arrested him, tied him up and cast him in the Ocean. Consequently, the Saint Thomas Christians got agitated and as a result, a large gathering of about 25,000 assembled at Mattancherry and took the Oath at 'Koonan Cross' which happens to be known as the historical 'Koonan Kurisu Sathayam' in 1653 and declared that their future generations will ever be loyal to the throne of Antioch and we would not adhere to the Franks, nor accept the faith of the Pope of Rome.
- Malanakara Orthodox (Independent Oriental Orthodox following West Syrian tradition & Marthoma version (A Protestant reformed church following west Syrian tradition):
By the Father, Son and Holy Ghost that henceforth we would not adhere to the Franks, nor accept the faith of the Pope of Rome, nor any foreign rule.
- Syro-Malabar (Eastern Catholic Church following East Syrian tradition) & Syro-Malankara version (Eastern Catholic Church following West Syrian tradition):
A protest took place in 1653 with the Coonan Cross Oath. Under the leadership of Archdeacon Thoma, the Saint Thomas Christians publicly took an oath that they would not obey the Jesuit bishops. The oath was not against the Pope or the Catholic Church but against the Portuguese authorities.
- "Koonan Oath 00001". Unknown parameter
- I. Gillman and H. -J. Klimkeit, Christians in Asia Before 1500, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), p.177.
- Rev Dr Placid Podipara, The Hierarchy of Syro Malabar Church, in the collected works of Rev Dr Placid Podipara CMI, Vol I p 719
- Vadakkekara, p. 84; 86.
- Frykenberg, p. 361.
- Fernando, p. 79.
- Chaput, pp. 7–8.
- Vadakkekara, p. 84 and note.
- A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707 By Stephen Neill page 326-327
- David Daniel "The Orthodox Church of India" http://www.orthodoxherald.com/2010/01/05/the-koonen-cross-oath/
- Baum, Wilhelm Baum; Dietmar W. Winkler (2003). The Church of the East: A Concise History. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-29770-2. Retrieved 5 April 2010.
- Frykenberg, Eric (2008). Christianity in India: from the Beginnings to the Present. Oxford. ISBN 0-19-826377-5.
- Neill, Stephen (2004). A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-54885-3. Retrieved 20 April 2010.
- Jacobite Syrian Church
- Niranam Diocese of Jacobite Syrian Church
- History of the Orthodox Church
- History of the Syro-Malabar Church