A file photo of Bishop Geevarghese Mar Coorilos of the Jacobite Syrian Church, from his Facebook page. Image Credit: Facebook

Thiruvananthapuram: The Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala, which is embroiled in controversy over its cardinal George Alencherry’s alleged involvement in the sale of prime land holdings of the church, has plunged into another row — a debate over whether or not St Thomas ever came to India.

The row was triggered a few days ago when bishop Geevarghese Mar Coorilos of the Jacobite Syrian Church opined that St Thomas, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ, had not visited Kerala, and neither did he convert upper caste Hindus to Christianity.

Senior priest and spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church, Paul Thelekkat agreed to the bishop’s opinion, stating that it was unlikely that some Brahmins were converted to Christianity by St Thomas in the first century because Brahmins are known to have settled in Kerala only from the 7th century.

Thelekkat took the line of late Pope John Paul II, who had also wondered whether St Thomas ever set foot in Kerala.

However, Kerala Christians have traditionally believed that St Thomas was the first evangelist in Kerala and that he built churches in different parts of the state.

Historian M.G.S. Narayanan added a new angle to the debate, by pointing out that the apostle was extremely unlikely to have come to Kerala in the 1st century, since at that time Kerala was hardly populated, not to mention Brahmins being converted to Christianity.

Narayanan, a highly respected historian, wondered why St Thomas would be in Kerala at a time when the geography that is now Kerala, had only forests and no human habitation.

He said the belief that St Thomas came to Kerala was made up by vested interests, and that for religions it suited to be connected to stories that are as old as possible. He added that it was nothing new for religions and political parties to twist history to suit their requirements.

However, the Syro-Malabar Church has taken exception to the argument that St Thomas never came to Kerala. Curia bishop, Mar Vaniapurackal said St Thomas had indeed come to Kerala and that there were evidences to prove this. He said those who denied the apostle’s arrival in Kerala were only a minority.

The debate has also sparked a robust conversation on social media, where one commentator said what was important was not whether the apostle came to Kerala or not but whether people were following the scriptures that he preached, while another said, tongue-in-cheek, that “the priests and Pharisees are destroying my temple”.