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Controversy over Pope's St Thomas remarks among Kerala Christians

Source: PTI
November 22, 2006 16:45 IST
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Controversy is raging in the Christian community in Kerala following recent remarks by Pope Benedict XVI that St Thomas had preached Christianity in "western" India from where it spread to other parts of the country, fuelling a debate whether or not the apostle had come to southern India.

The community in Kerala believes that St Thomas came to this part in AD 52 and had established seven and half churches.

The community considers St Thomas as the 'Father in Faith' of Christians in India.

The present Pope, in a pronouncement at St Peter's Square in Vatican recently, spoke of St Thomas the apostle, seemingly taking away from him the traditional title 'Apostle of India'.

Though he did not actually use the expression 'Apostle of Pakistan', what he said may seem to imply it, said an article by George Nedungatt, a faculty member of the Oriental Pontifical Institute, Rome, in Satya Deepam, a mouthpiece of the Syro-Malabar church.

The article said the Pope's predecessors had on several occasions referred to St Thomas as the Apostle of India.

However, differing from this view, Pope Benedict feels the area St Thomas evangelised was not south India, but what he called "western India" corresponding roughly to today's Pakistan, said the article.

The Pope, addressing a vast crowd at St Peter's Square, is said to have stated, "Thomas first evanglised Syria and Persia and then penetrated as far as western India from where Christianity also reached south India".

According to the Pope, while north-western India was evangelised by St Thomas, south India was not evangelised by him.

He does not specify who first preached the gospel in south India; whether it was some disciple or disciples of the apostle himself or others in the post-apostolic age or later, the article said.

As the Pope sees it, south India was not evangelised by St Thomas, but by Christians from north-western India, seemingly at a later priod.

"The Thomas Christians of south India, both Catholic and others are not likely to be thankful for this papal statement. This is a clear departure from the pronouncements of his predecessors," the article said.

Church sources say there is scholarly debate on the evidence on whether St Thomas came to India and Kerala.

Historical proofs are the Gospel of St Thomas and Act of Thomas, the sources said. From these there are evidences that St Thomas came to India. But it is not clear whether he had come to western India or south India, the sources said adding, the geography of the country was different earlier.

Several Popes have asserted the origin of south Indian Christianity from the Apostle Thomas. Pope John Paul V in 1606 erected the diocoese of San Thomas of Mylapore "because there lay buried the body of St Thomas," the article said.

Establishing the hierarchy of the Latin Catholic church in India in 1886, Pope Leo XIII referred to India as having first received the light of the gospel from Apostle Thomas.

During the apostolic visit to India in 1986, Pope John Paul II visited the Mylapore tomb (in present day Chennai) and in a brief discourse, he is said to have cited the words of Apostle Thomas to his companions, it said.

In 1990, while raising the Syro-Malabar church as a major archepiscopal church, Pope John Paul II wrote that this church "as the constant tradition holds, owed its origin to the preaching of Apostle St Thomas."

The article said the Pope may have stepped on unfamiliar ground. The evangelisation of south India by north Indian Christianity is a new theory.

The Pope has 'ignored' the Indian tradition about the evanglisation of south India by Apostle Thomas and sets aside the clear and repeated statements of his predecessors supporting the tradition.

"In short, he denies the apostolic origin of the churches of the Thomas Christians by excluding Apostle Thomas from the evangelisation of south India," it said.

In 2002, the 1,950th anniversary of St Thomas' arrival in Kerala was celebrated by the Sryo-Malabar church in which the papal delegate had participated, sources pointed out.

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