Discovery of last Persian bishop’s tomb to help church unity

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Chaldean Metropolitan Mar Abraham represents a common heritage of India’s Christian community
Jeemon Jacob, Thiruvananthapuram
The recent discovery of the tomb of the last Persian bishop to serve the Christian community in southern India could help different churches in India work more closely, Catholic Church leaders say.

Officials at St. Hormis Church in Angamaly in Kerala stumbled upon the tomb of 16th century Chaldean Metropolitan Mar Abraham on Sept. 19.

The tomb was located about 10 feet underground and discovered during renovation work on the church that was built in 1585.

Church documents record the burial of the bishop inside the church. “But we could not locate the exact place of his burial,” Father Kuriakose Mundadan, the church’s historian and rector, told

“It’s a very significant find,” Father Mundadan said, noting that Mar Abraham served the St. Thomas Christians at a turning point in the history of the global church, when Portuguese missionaries began to arrive in Asia.

Mar Abraham served the church from 1568 to 1597 when Portuguese missionaries were trying to lure Kerala Christians away from the Chaldean Church and into the Latin fold.

At that time, Kerala Christians who traced their faith to St. Thomas the Apostle followed local Hindu customs and rituals. But the Portuguese saw them as following “pagan” ways and attempted to lead them to what they believed to be true Christianity, resulting in much wrangling in the local church.

Mar Abraham died without relinquishing his office and leadership in 1597. Soon after his death, Portuguese Archbishop Alexio De Menezes appointed Jesuit Father Francis Ross as the bishop. Two years later in 1599, Bishop Ross convened a synod — the Synod of Diamper — that attempted to cleanse the Kerala Christians of their “pagan” ways.

Decisions made by the synod, which condemned most cultural practices of the Christian community, were the basis of a major split that happened in the church in 1665.

With further splits based on turf wars and money, the old St. Thomas Christians now stand divided into eight different churches.

The tomb of Mar Abraham was found in what is now a Catholic church, and represents the common heritage of the Christian community in India, said Cardinal George Alencherry, who heads the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.

“Bishop Abraham, who governed a unified church, is a landmark find in church history,” the cardinal said, hoping that the tomb would help different Christian communities to work more closely.

He said the tomb could help encourage more cooperation among different Christian churches in Kerala, adding that he would listen to the opinions of leaders and historians of other churches about preserving the tomb.

The Vatican-based Congregation for the Oriental Churches describes the Chaldean of Persian rite as a separate and distinct East Syrian rite with a unique liturgy.