The Coonan Cross Oath / Koonan Kurishu Satyam
(January 3, 1653) A fond remembrance on the 360th Anniversary)
As we are gearing into the year 2013 and in the wake of the recent developments with the circular dated 12/20/2012 from Bishop Angadiath, the struggle and challenges faced by the North American Knanaya Catholic faithful to maintain and keep our unique identity and heritage is in peril. On January 3rd 2013 we celebrate the 360th anniversary of Koonan Kurishu Satyam, a courageous act of our forefathers 'The St. Thomas Christians' 360 years ago against the inquisitions, impositions and intolerance's abhorrently practiced by the hierarchy at the time. A brief narration of the events and fond remembrance may revive the spirit of freedom underlying in each one of us within the Knanaya Catholic Community in North America. The timing is pure coincidental, but the need to stand up against any unacceptable decrees and yokes of slavery that are being put forth to abolish the Knanaya heritage and traditions by any hierarchy is a call of duty to every Knanya individual.
The Coonan Cross Oath
The Saint Thomas Christians who lived in India from AD 52 and the Knanaya community who said to have arrived the Malabar coast in the year AD 345 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 and the Portuguese colonization of India using Goa as its headquarters, they brought Roman Catholic priests headed by an Arch Bishop to take over the religious supremacy, 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 under the jurisdiction of the Portuguese padroado and into the Latin Rite of the Catholics. Those days, the Malankara Nazrani Christians were well established and was following the Marthoma tradition of India. The Portuguese tried to lure the Nazrani’s with both money and positions to come under the reign of the Roman Catholic Church. They mercilessly murdered or exiled some of the Persian Bishops, and stopped the arrival of new Bishops to the Indian region. A series of synods, including the 1585 Synod of Goa, were held, which introduced Latinized elements to the local liturgy. Arch Bishop of Goa, Alexio Da Menezes tried to influence and force the Malankara Church head Arch-Deacon Geevarghese of Pakalomattom family to bring the Malankara Church under the control of the Roman Catholic Church. All the Malankara church representatives including Arch-Deacon Geevarughese unanimously refused to do so. Arch Bishop Menezes used his influence with the Raja (King) of Cochin and summoned a meeting of all the representatives of the Church at Udayamperur. The King threatened that absentees to the meeting would end up having their properties confiscated. Thus the historically significant Udayamperur Synod took place on 20th June 1599 led by Bishop Menezes, the Portuguese governor, higher Government officials, and armed Portuguese soldiers with the full support of the Raja of Cochin. Arch Deacon Geevarghese along with 133 priests 10 deacons and 660 laymen attended. The meeting enforced decrees to accept the faith and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope. The Malankara Nazrani Syrian Christians signed the decrees, as they were afraid of the Portuguese opposition and their own King. They accepted the Roman authority with dissent. The St. Thomas Christian’s east Syrian traditions and liturgy was then replaced by Latin Liturgy and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. The Synod of Diamper, (Udayamperur) finally brought the Saint Thomas Christians fully 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 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”. 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 August 3, 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”.
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. “In order 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)″. 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.
The incident of Mar Ahatalla presented an occasion for the St. Thomas Christians to retaliate. When they came to know that Mar Ahatalla was drowned, they could not tolerate the imperious Portuguese and their arbitrary actions.
On January 3, 1653 under the leadership of Archeadeacon Thomas and Anjilimoottil Itty Thomman Kathanar (a Knanaya Priest from Kallissery) a multitude of about 25,000 Nasrani Christians assembled at the Church of Our Lady in Mattanchery near Cochin. The Priests leaders and the people gatherd near a big granite cross in the church grounds, since all the people could not touch the cross simultaneously, they all held onto ropes that were tied to the cross in all directions. They then took the historical oath to break free from the clutches of the Roman supremacy and follow only the Malankara Nazrani traditions
It is said that because of the weight the Cross bent a little and hence it is known as Oath of the bent cross or the Coonan Cross Oath (Koonan Kurishu Satyam). According to tradition , out of a population of 200,000 St. Thomas Christians, only 400 remained loyal to the Roman Arch bishop Garcia. The event in 1653 broke the fifty four year old yoke of Roman supremacy imposed at the Udayamperur Synod of 1599.
This historic event and its 360th anniversary is demanding us the knanaya Catholic faithful living in USA to speak up against the injustice. Our heritage, values and traditions are compromised. A few lost sheep, some wolfs disguised as sheeps and a couple of power hungry shepherds are leading us into the valley of the shadow of death. If we are brave enough as our forefathers to stand up with dignity, the true God will walk with us and will divide the waters, so that we can cross through this hostile sea of persecution.