Church shooting puts spotlight on Knanaya religion

Newark, USA - When a gunman attacked parishioners at a Clifton church last month, word of the shootings spread quickly among two culturally divergent communities that share a strong but little known bond: South Indians and Middle Easterners, who both are members of the Syriac Orthodox tradition.

The tragic shooting cast light on a lesser-known sect of the Syriac Orthodox called the Knanaya, whose members largely hail from the South Indian state of Kerala.

On Nov. 23, a gunman entered The St. Thomas Syrian Orthodox Knanaya Church in Clifton — a suburb west of Manhattan — and shot three people, killing two of them.

Joseph Pallipurath was arraigned Friday on charges of fatally shooting his estranged wife, 24-year-old Reshma James, who prosecutors say had previously taken out a restraining order against him. Also killed was Dennis John Mallosseril, who witnesses said was trying to intervene on James' behalf.

James' 47-year-old cousin, Silvy Perincheril, was shot in the head and remains hospitalized and in a coma.

The tragedy has reverberated throughout the Knanayan community worldwide — a close-knit Christian sect estimated by church officials to have about 50,000 to 100,000 members. Their strict inter-marriage customs — meant to preserve ancient bloodlines — mean many families know one another, regardless of where they live.

The Rev. Thomas Abraham, the head of the Knanayan church in Clifton, said his members trace their roots back to 72 families that traveled from the Middle East around A.D. 340 to India to do missionary work.

"They brought the Bible to India, and the Syriac-Aramaic language, as was spoken by Jesus," Abraham said. "The liturgy and the Mass was celebrated in Syriac, and even now, we use it."

Preserving the bloodlines and the traditions of his people in New Jersey is a challenge with a new American-born generation, Abraham said.

"We are losing some to inter-marrying," he said. "We practice endogamy — marrying within the same community — and to be born of the Knanayan church you have to be of Knanayan parents, and once you marry outside the church, you automatically lose the bloodlines."

Abraham said he was sorry that people came to learn of the Knanayan's rich cultural and religious heritage only through the tragedy of the Clifton shootings.

"If you say you are from India, people think Indians are all Hindu," he said. "We want people to know there were Christians in India long before Columbus discovered America."

Kathleen McVey, professor of church history at the Princeton Theological Seminary, said the Knanayan claim Syriac-Jewish descent, and are among the earliest Christians, linking themselves to an apostle of Jesus.

"The Knanayan group is its own very ancient tradition, and they see themselves as a distinct group originating in 345, and I think there is good reason to think that their distinctive tradition does go back to a very early date," McVey said.

McVey said they emerge in historical documents in 345, when their leader came with a group from Mesopotamia to the Malabar Coast of what is today India.

"They claim other connections through the apostle Thomas, and a connection to Judaism through the earliest converts who converted to Christianity," McVey said.

Upon hearing of the shooting, the Knanayan archbishop traveled immediately from India to New Jersey to mourn with the congregation.

Syrian Orthodox church leaders also rushed to the church within an hour of the shooting to comfort the families.

Archbishop Cyril Aphrem Karim of the Syriac Orthodox Church of the Eastern United States — which is based in Teaneck — was one of those who reached out to the Knanayan. Karim said his congregation — largely made up Christians from Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere — feel a kinship with the Knanayan, who also answer to the patriarch in Damascus.

He said the relationship extends to the congregations in America.

"It's very enriching," Karim said of the Syriac Orthodox Diaspora. "The dogma, the beliefs are all the same. There's no difference to talk about in terms of church; there is in terms of culture, but Christianity always expresses itself in local culture."

Karim said the Knanayan church in New Jersey used to fall under his diocese until the early 1990s, when the group founded its own diocese in India.

Abraham said the Knanayans incorporate Aramaic language — mixed with Malayalam, an Indian language spoke in Kerala — when saying Mass, and follow many of the same Orthodox traditions as the Syrian church.