The Diamper Synod of 1599 had forced a number of Latinizations on the Malabar church. However, circumstances made the implementation of the new liturgical texts impossible and the changes were limited to rubrics, practices, and externals for the time being. While the native clergy accepted these imposed changes, discontent against the Jesuits and the Western bishops fomented beneath the surface. In 1641 two men who would have a lasting effect on the church ascended to positions of power: Francis Garcia as the new Archbishop of Kodungalloor and Archdeacon Thomas of the Malabar Church.
In 1652 an enigmatic character entered the scene. His name was Ahatallah and he claimed to be the rightful Patriarch of India and China, appointed by the Pope himself. Little is known of him and the concrete details that have been established are as follows:
- He appears to have been a Syriac Orthodox Bishop of Damascus who converted to Catholicism and went to Rome in 1632.
- He then returned to Syria in order to bring the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Hidayat Allah into communion with Rome.
- He was unsuccessful in this venture as the Patriarch died in 1639 before either he finished the job or could be convinced.
- He claimed to be the true successor to the dead Patriarch soon after.
- He acted as something of a liaison between Rome and the Oriental Miaphysite churches.
- He was in the court of the Coptic Pope from 1646 to 1652.
- The Coptic Pope dispatched him to India in 1652 following a plea for help (against the tyrannical Portuguese) from Archdeacon Thomas to any church that would listen (Catholic, Oriental Orthodox, or the Assyrians).
Ahatallah arrived in Mylapore with intention of being installed as head of the Malabar Church (despite his very tenuous claim) only to be arrested by the Portuguese who declared him an impostor and a heretic. They put him in the custody of the Jesuits who, to their credit, gave him considerable freedom and allowed him to meet with Malabar clerics. Ahatallah impressed both the Jesuits and the native clergy with his intellect and the latter returned to Archdeacon Thomas with nothing but good to say of their new “patriarch”. The Archdeacon still insisted on seeing the man’s credentials but was willing to accept him if everything checked out. He raised a militia and marched on Mylapore, demanding to see Ahatallah. The Portuguese responded that “the impostor” had been deported on a ship to Goa. The Indian Christians never saw Ahatallah again.
While there is a general agreement among historians that Ahatallah’s ship actually reached Goa and then Lisbon and that he died in Paris en route to Rome where his case was to be decided, that did little to prevent the rumors spreading like wildfire among the Indian Christians that he had been drowned in the harbor or burned as a heretic. This was to be the breaking point, the last straw for the Nasrani Christians.
“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.” – A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707
Rome sent a Syrian bishop and a delegation of Carmelites to appease the Indians, but it was already too late. The Jacobite Syrians sent a bishop of their own to recognize Mar Thoma I as the Metropolitan of Kerala and bring the Indians into the Miaphysite communion. From this point on the Nasrani divided into two main groups: The Malabar who stayed with Rome after the response to the Coonan Cross Oath, and the Malankara who didn’t and adopted the West Syrian Rite.
Over he next few hundred years, the latter would undergo several divisions due to politics and the arrival of Protestantism (the Anglicans managed to poach some in the 19th century). There is now even a distinction between one group that is directly under the Syrians and another that is a full-fledged autocephalous church even though both are Oriental Orthodox.
In the 1930’s, Pius XI approached them to open the possibility of communion. He assuaged the misgivings of many by granting independence to the Malabar and a large number became a sui juris Catholic Church, The Malankara Catholic Church.
Ritually, they are West Syrian with few if any latinizations (being in communion since only 1932 is probably the most significant factor of that). Intinction is the method of distributing the Eucharist and both leavened and unleavened bread is used depending on the particular church (there is no real feeling of necessity among them to use either leavened bread like the Byzantines or unleaved like the Romans). Bread is bread and can become the Bread of Life as God wills.
They are also one of the few groups who I have prayed among both the Catholic and Orthodox communities. Both were quite welcoming and seemed not really to care that I was not Indian, Malankara, or Orthodox (some in the Orthodox church said among the Malankara Caholics, “They are just like us, just under different bishops.”). They were even kind enough to provide me with a liturgy book (with Sleeba and Kythma Morning/Evening Prayers and the Liturgy of St. James).
That all may be one. Praise be to Jesus Christ!