by  Fr. Cherian George Poothicote

[Zachrias Mar Nicholovos, the former Metropolitan of the

Malankara Archdiocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church in North America]


In the first quarter of the twentieth century, The Syrian Orthodox Church which underwent two schisms in the previous century has to face another schism, more serious than the previous ones. The history of the Syrian Orthodox Church, in India is a lesson for any serious student of history, about the drastic and destructive effects caused by the adamancy and autocracy of a bishop, Mar Dionasius VI who was not willing to abide by the long standing traditions of the church. In this venture he was supported by a group of misguided nationalists who could not perceive the idea of a church which transcends national and ethnical limitations. The consequences of the disharmony and disunity sowed by this group are still being reaped by the members of the Syrian Orthodox Church. It has become the fate of the Syrian Orthodox Christians to spend all their energy, time and wealth on litigations in the civil courts. It is a shameful reality that even in this age when ecumenical movement and other unifying movements are at work, this ancient church with its apostolic claims is spending millions of rupees and thousands of man hours on litigations and could not find any means to solve its problems outside the court and thus provide a proper Christian witness to the pluralistic Indian society.

 In this brief article an attempt is made to make a brief survey of the causes and courses of this split on the basis of the available documents. Though the sources are scanty and scarce, attempt is made to gather as much facts as possible.



Towards the end of the nineteenth century the 'Reformist' party who questioned the authority of the Patriarch of Antioch was forced either to abandon all their reformist ideas or to leave the church through the judgment of the Royal Court of Final appeal, Travancore. They opted to take the latter course and formed a new church, "Naveekarnna Sabha" which was later named as Mar Thoma Church of Malabar.

The struggle between the reform group and the mainstream of the church brought several issues into the limelight. One of these was the authority of the Patriarch over the Church in Malankara. While the reform group bluntly refused to accept any type of authority of the Patriarch over the Malankara Metropolitan, the mainstream of the church under the leadership of Mar Dionysius V decided to abide by the long standing tradition of the Malankara Church that Malankara Church inspite of its national and ethnic characteristics should maintain its catholic nature by continuing its relationship with the Patriarchate of Antioch. Most interestingly the Royal Court Judgement declared that the Patriarch has spiritual supremacy over the Malankara Church but no authority over the temporalities.

The rights of the Patriarch was never disputed earlier by the Syrian Orthodox Church in India. The reformist movement brought this issue into the limelight. The Royal Court Judgement of the later Judgements could not solve the problem. Even now after a century and more the issue remains unsolved. The dispute though brought in a schism into the Church, cleared a lot of ambiguities regarding the relationship and people were forced to take a stand.

In the year 1876 a synod was convened at Mulanthuruthy by His Holiness Peter III, the then Patriarch of Antioch, to discus the problems faced by the church because of the reformist movement. This synod brought back into life the age old democratic administrative pattern of the Malankara church and formalised it. The representative forum of the parishes was formalised here and was called the Syrian Christian Association. A standing body was created to take decisions regarding the matters of common interest. This type of an administrative pattern was a unique feature of the Malankara Church. This event points out to us how different types of church polity was possible in a church which is catholic in nature. This also brings to our notice the openness with which the Patriarch dealt with the situation here. He did not have difficulty in accepting and approving a church polity which was not prevalent any where else in his jurisdiction. This type of administrative pattern was in existence in Malankara from a very early period.

The deliberations in the synod led to the decision which formally acknowledged the age long tradition of the Malankara Church, the spiritual and temporal supremacy of the Patriarch of Antioch. It also decided that every congregation should submit a deed of submission to the Patriarch of Antioch. Thus at this synod the long standing tradition of the church was formalised and made a legally valid law of the church. The decision of the synod to have separate registered documents to be executed by individual parishes and the fact that only a few actually did it affirms that even at this stage independence of the individual parishes were respected and acknowledged.

As we found in an earlier paragraph at this synod a formal body was formulated to deal with the common problems faced by the church in Malankara. The Malankara metropolitan was made the president of this body and was vested with full powers to file and conduct all legal suits on matters concerning the affairs of the church and to raise funds to finance such court proceedings. The then Malankara metropolitan Mar Dionysius V acted in his capacity as the President of the Association and filed the suit which eventually led to the victory of the Syrian Orthodox Church.

During his visit the Patriarch, realizing the importance of having more bishops and the gigantic size of the Malankara diocese, divided it into seven dioceses namely Kandanad, Niranam, Kottayam, Thumpamon, Quilon, Cochin and Angamaly and appointed bishops to all these dioceses after receiving registered deeds of submission from those who were consecrated. According to these deeds if they wander away from the faith and tradition of the Syrian Orthodox Church after receiving the consecration such violators would have to pay a penalty of Rs. 2850/-. With this, the submission made by the metropolitans at the time of consecration was made a legally valid document. The Patriarchate learned its lesson from the experience it had with Mathews Mar Athanasius of Palakunnath.

During this period there were no objections from anybody regarding the authority of the Patriarch of about the newly consecrated metropolitans signing registered deeds of submission to the Patriarch of Antioch. We should remember here that one among the bishops consecrated by Moran Mar Peter III - the Patriarch at Malankara after getting a registered deed of submission was none other than St. Gregorious of Parumala. It is difficult for us to believe that a personality like him will sign such a document if it was against the tradition of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church. But as people and time changed, new problems emerged in the horizon.

In the year 1908 the Malankara Association met at the old Seminary, elected Vattasseril Geevarghese Ramban and Kochuparambil Paulose Ramban for the bishopric and sent them to the Patriarch of Antioch to be consecrated as metropolitans. Both were consecrated by the then Patriarch of Antioch Mar Abdullah II and sent back to Malankara as metropolitans Geevarghese Mar Dionysius and Paulose Mar Coorilose.

Mar Dinoysius V did not live long after the arrival of the newly consecrated metropolitans. He passed away after a long and different tenure as the Malankara Metropolitan on July 11th 1909, within one year after the arrival of the new metropolitans. Though Mar Dionysius V had a difficult time as the Malankara Metropolitan he was able to leave for his successor a consolidated and peaceful church. But the successor's ambitions and arrogance did not allow the peace and calm to continue for long in the Malankara church.

At the time of the demise of Mar Dionysius V the Patriarch Mar Abdullah was in London en route to India. The information about the demise was communicated to him through a cable message with a further request to appoint Mar Dionysius VI as the new Malankara Metropolitan, which the Patriarch did gladly. Consequent to the appointment by the Patriarch the Sunthroniso - of Mar Dionysius, was conducted at the Old Seminary, Kottayam.

From the beginning of reign itself Mar Dionysius VI proved to be autocratic in his behaviour with his co-trustees. He refused to hand over the keys of the Bethgaza - the treasury, which the co-trustees were entitled to keep. The keys were supposed to be in the joint custody of all the trustees. But on the demise of Mar Dionysius V, Mar Dionysius VI refused to comply with this tradition of the church and demanded for the exclusive custody of the Bethgaza. He succeeded in getting the management committee passing a resolution in his favour. This put the priest-trustee and the lay-trustee in a predicament. They being the trustees, were jointly responsible for the treasury but the keys were handled by the Metropolitan alone. It was at this juncture that Mar Abdullah II, the Patriarch of Antioch visited Malankara. 



Mar Abdullah II, the Patriarch of Antioch who was in London en route to India at the time of the demise of Mar Dionysius V, arrived at Bombay on 24th September 1909. On arrival the Patriarch was formally received by a delegation under the leadership of Geevarghese Mar Dionysius himself. In Kerala large scale receptions with pomp and splendour were arranged for the Patriarch at different places.

Once the receptions were over, the Patriarch proceeded with convening a meeting of the representatives of the parishes of the church in Malankara on 27th November, 1909 at the Old Seminary Kottayam. In the notice issued by His Holiness on November 1st, 1909, convening the meeting, he had stated that in order that his coming may be fruitful, he desired to meet them and know their petitions and requests. The meeting was actually held on 28th and 29th. In his opening address the Patriarch asked for the petitions in the form of a memorandum.

This speech of Patriarch calls for a little clarification. It has already been brought to the notice of the readers that there had been a dispute between the Metropolitan and his co-trustees in the first managing committee meeting of the new Malankara Metropolitan. In the committee despite the objections from Konattu Mathan Malpan and Mr. C. J. Kurian, the co-trustees, decision was taken favouring the Metropolitan and other reducing the co-trustees into mere puppets. The committee decided that 'In the case of a dispute between the Metropolitan and other trustees', the decision of the Metropolitan shall prevail. The decision of the managing committee was enough to invalidate even the principal of co-trusteeship against all the democratic principles. The Patriarch who had already received complaints about this episode thought it was better to present the matter before the meeting of the representatives of the parishes than to take any arbitrary decision on the issue. It is to be stated here that the Patriarch did not even mention about having received any complaints about anybody. He just declared in the speech that if anybody wishes to bring forward any complaints about anybody it should be done formally through proper channels. To facilitate an open discussion in the association the Patriarch retired from the venue of the assembly immediately after the opening address.

Some of the representatives present in the assembly demanded that the propriety of the resolutions passed by the managing committee contravention to the practices of the church, be considered. The supporters of Mar Dionysius diverted the issue by alleging that the Patriarch desired to interfere with the temporal affairs of the church,  realizing that events are taking a different course and the assembly ended in utter confusion. Being informed about the developments, the Patriarch declared next day in the Seminary Chapel that he never intended to interfere in the temporal affairs of the local church.

Comprehending that matters were not moving in the direction that wanted, the party supporting Mar Dionysius altered their tactics. From the experience they had at the Old Seminary meeting they understood that they cannot lead the people as they wish if events moved properly. So they declared a media war against the Patriarch. Through pamphlets and news papers they tried to mislead the people about the developments in the church. In this venture they succeeded to a great extent. The presence of Mr. K.C. Mammen Mapplia, editor of 'The Malayala Manorama' a leading Malayalam news paper having a wide circulation among the Syrian Christian population as a stalwart of Mar Dionysius party,  helped them a lot in creating negative opinions about the Patriarch.

The Patriarch who did not have any machinery to counteract the systematic and well planned attack, responded to this through a circular dated 8th September 1910 refuting all false allegations against him and he pointed out that he was only following a path opened by his predecessor which was approved and accepted by the Malankara Church without any hesitation in the common interest of the church.

Matters having reached so far the Patriarch who was well aware of the complicated situation that arose in Malankara following the consecration of Mathews Mar Athanasius of Palakunnath asked Mar Dionysius and Mar Coorilose to submit the registered deed of submission as agreed by both at the time of consecration. A request which Mar Dionysius refused to oblige while Mar Coorilose submitted it happily. With his refusal the cunningness and insincerity of Mar Dionysius became obvious. He proved that he never intended to take the oath he made at the time of his consecration seriously and the Patriarch and the Malankara church fell an easy prey to his cunningness. The trust Mar Abdulla had in Mar Dionysius is proved by the fact that he demanded the deed only at a stage when the rebelliousness in Dionysius was evident.

The Patriarch then started visiting the parishes and several parishes executed registered deeds of submission to him. These registered deeds were an agreement executed by the parishioners themselves declaring their faith and allegiance to the Patriarchate and not an agreement handing over the temporalities of the parishes to the Patriarch of Antioch. The agreement reads as follows:

'If anyone from among us might act against in anyway or say or prompt others to act against this udampady (deed) or any part thereof; such person should remit Rs. 200/- in the church and he would have no right, nor connection, nor ownership over the said church, or over the present movable or immovable properties of the said church, or which might be earned later.'

These words prove that the deeds were meant only to be a legal protection against any possibility of schismatics claiming the properties of the church and nothing more than that. As days passed by, the polarization among the people became more and more visible. In this new struggle both the co-trustees of Mar Dionysius VI, Konattu Mathan Malpan and Mr. C. J. Kurien took their position with the Patriarch.

The Patriarch seeing the necessity of having new bishops, consecrated two new bishops, Mar Athanasius and Mar Severius.

The climax of the tension between the Patriarch and Mar Dionysius was reached with the excommunication of Mar Dionysius VI on 8th June 1911 on the following charges.

1. The properties belonging to the church were not managed and utilised in the best interests of the church.

2. Mar Dionysius, keeping in view of his personal interests, functioned in complete freedom and authority which was not in the best interests of the Holy Church.

3. In order to secure such freedom and authority, Mar Dionysius kindled feud and dissentions in the church.

4. Mar Dionysuis endeavoured to exercise absolute power in an independent manner as if there was no higher authority.

5. Mar Dionysius did not obey the legal and rightful higher authority.

6. Mar Dionysius behaved and acted in a false and prejudicial manner, which belittled the honour and reverence due to the Patriarch and the Holy Throne of St. Peter and abetted such actions by others.

7. All the above acts violated the provisions of the Shalmosa contracted by Mar Dionysius at the consecration in the presence of Holy Trinity, Saints and angels, the Holy Sanctuary and the dreadful Holy Qurbana.

        On the above charges, Mar Dionysius VI was "excommunicated deposed, and de-robed" from the position of metropolitan.

A few days after receiving the letter of excommunication, on  27th June 1911 Mar Dionysius convened a meeting of the managing committee members at M.D. Seminary chapel. The meeting was attended by Mar Dionysius himself and Mar Alvares Julius a metropolitan consecrated from among the people who joined the Syrian Orthodox Church from among  the Roman Catholics and many of the lay and clergy leaders who had sympathy towards Mar Dionysius. This meeting decided to call for an Association. The Association convened had a majority of the supporters of Mar Dionysius because most of the parishes did not sent representatives as it was conveyed by the excommunicated Metropolitan. This so called association was held on 7th September 1911. It passed a resolution to the effect of supporting the excommunicated Metropolitan and removing the two trustees from the trusteeship and appointing two others to their places. At the same time the Malankara association was convened as per instruction of the Patriarch. This association meeting was held on 31st August 1911. And was attended by the Patriarch himself, Sleeba Mar Osthathios and three Indian Metropolitans. This meeting elected Mar Coorilose as the Malankara Metropolitan and prayed to the Patriarch to make the appointment to that effect. After appointing Mar Coorilose as the Malankara Metropolitan as per the request of the Malankara Association, the Patriarch left India with a heavy heart because of the split and the disputes which were kindled by the obstinate nature of one bishop.



The party supporting Mar Dionysius was already scheming on the course of action to be taken in case of excommunication even before the event since Mar Dionysius was perhaps sure about him being excommunicated by the Patriarch. One of the main leaders of the group, a close lieutenant of Mar Dionysius Fr. P.T. Geevarghese Panicker started corresponding with the deposed Patriarch Mar Abdul Masiah. Mar Abdul Masiah was very happy to get a chance like this and the occasion was made use of by the Dionysius party to establish a Catholicate in Malankara.

The request for a Catholicate in Malankara was neither new nor a scheme hatched by Mar Dionysius or anybody from his group. The Malankara Church pleaded for a Catholicate in Malankara to Mar Peter III and to Mar Abdul Masiah while he was on the throne. The reply from Mar Abdul Masiah was as follows:

"He who writes for this purpose (for Catholicate) would be accursed by the Father, Son and Holy Ghost."

The same person who wrote the above reply was willing to re-establish the Catholicate after his deposition. Even after the deposition he was hesitant to do.  This story is narrated by Fr. P.T. Geevarghese in a booklet titled "GIRIDEEPAM". He being the master-brain behind the drama knows the story and all the facts. He has narrated vividly the hesitation Mar Abdul Masiah had about the establishment of the Catholicate and how Fr. Geevarghese managed to coax him to do it.

Thus on 17th September 1912 Mar Abdul Masiah the deposed Patriarch, claimed to have raised Mar Ivanios the bishop who was made to retire from the power because of senility; to the Catholicate at Niranam. This event was another important turning point in the history of the Syrian Orthodox Church in India. It brought in a horde of new issues into the already complicated dispute and made it further complicated. Though we have to go into the history of the Catholicate itself to have a comprehension of the issues we do not have the space and time here to derive deep into the subject.

This pseudo establishment of the Catholicate by a deposed Patriarch for a party of an excommunicated has to be seen as an assertion parochialism against catholicity. It was done in a context when the ruling Patriarch did not comply with the parochial interest of the local bishop. This event has to be seen as the culmination of the parochialism.

Throughout this period of continued depletion of the energies and financial resources of Church, there came verdicts declaring one or the other party victorious. There were also peace talks going on simultaneously. Many Patriarchs came to the throne. Mar Dionysius visited Mardin to negotiate for peace while there was a verdict favouring the Patriarch and an agreement was arrived at. But on his coming back he realised that the verdict has been successfully manipulated and he changed his mind and the Church's desire for peace could not be fulfilled. Till his death in 1934 he managed to keep the church split. 



Before evaluating the events narrated, we should have a look at the life history of Mar Dionysius. A look into the personal history will be helpful for us to evaluate the schism he had originated.

Geevarghese was born into Vattasseril family of Mallappally in the year 1858. This village is the place where the Anglican missionaries of the C.M.S. had established its first Church for the Syrian Christians who joined the Church of England. Young Geevarghese had his early education in Malayalam alphabet and Arithmetic from the local village teacher. After this he joined the local school and for high school education he had to go to Kottayam. Both these schools were run by the C.M.S. missionaries.

While Geevarghese was a student in the C.M.S. High School at Kottayam, Patriarch Peter III visited India and Geevarghese was ordained to the minor order by the Patriarch himself. After the ordination he stopped school studies and took up the Syriac studies under Mar Gregorios of Parumala and Mar Ivanios of Kandanad.

In the year 1880 he was ordained priest and in 1811 he was appointed to teach at the Parumala Seminary and later in the year 1885 when the Kottayam Seminary was recovered by Mar Dionysius V, Fr. Geevarghese along with Konat Mathan Malpan began to teach there which he continued till his consecration as Metropolitan in the year 1909. The events after his consecration has already, been discussed in this article and in a ripe old age he died in the year 1934.



From the above narrative we can easily visualize the shameful plight into which the Syrian Orthodox Church in India has fallen, and the continuous and unceasing dispute about the authority and taking each and every issue into courts of law. The above discussion proves to us beyond any doubts that the schism which came into being had its origins in the arrogant and uncompromising character of Mar Dionysius. His unwillingness to comply with the traditions of the church was the basic reason for this schism. Here we also have to admit that he like any other human being, is a product of his environment and his position should be evaluated in the general context of the Indian History.

In this schism we descry clear disagreement on the question of authority which was derived from different concepts of the Church. Mar Dionysius VI, was a person who was trained till the age of 18, i.e. his formative years, in C.M.S. institutions; and he naturally have imbibed some of the Protestant ideals of church polity. This is true about his supporters also. Most of his lay supporters like Mr. K.C. Mammen Mappillai and Mr. E.J. John were people educated in Protestant institutions.

The training received by Mar Dionysius and the leaders of his supporters in the Protestant institutions must have had an Anglicizing impact on them. It is only natural that the exulted group develop and maintain a worshipful attitude towards the exploiters unknowingly and try to imitate them ever where possible. This type of Anglicization in the cultural areas and the militant nationalism which was on the rise all over India must be seen as an important reason for the parochial ecclesiological position took by Mar Dionysius. Thus it becomes obvious to us that the Dionysius schism was the result of the adamancy of a misguided bishop who, despite his scholarship and vast knowledge could not view the church as a movement which transcend geographical, cultural and linguistic barriers and his misguided efforts resulted in the formation of a church in which the credulous affirmation of being a catholic (universal) church became a mere farce.

Published with permission from the Principal, M.S.O.T Seminary, Mulanthuruthy.



Fr. Cherian George Poothicote (Zachrias Mar Nicholovos, the former Metropolitan of the Malankara  Archdiocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church in North America)

Published on behalf of the  Dept. of History of Christianity, M.S.O.T Seminary, Udayagiri, Mulanthuruthy



Excelsior 1990,  M.S.O.T Seminary,  Mulanthuruthy; Pages 43-58