The southern Indian Kerala state government's tourism department has initiated a plan to attract visitors to ancient Christian sites but church officials were irked that were not consulted.
V. Jose, Kerala's tourism director said Christianity in the southern coastal state is as old as Christianity itself. "The tradition that St. Thomas the Apostle established India's first Christian community here is not much known among international travelers. This knowledge alone can play a major role in bringing religious scholars, historians and pilgrims to the state," Jose said.
To popularize the ancient history of Christians, the tourism department has planned five short movies depicting centuries of Christian life in Kerala using church architecture, pilgrim centers, festivals, Christian art and cuisines.
"We plan to broadcast the movies via the internet and social media by March and we hope that the campaign will bring travelers to the state by the 2018 season," said Jose.
Global Christians are increasingly interested in Kerala after the canonization of Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Sister Euphrasia in 2014, and Sister Alphonsa in 2008, he said.
However, no one from the tourism department has contacted the state's official body of bishops, the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council, according to Father George Vettikattil, council spokesperson.
Father Ignesh Payyappalli, who heads the archives division of the Syro-Malabar Church, one of the three Catholic rites in Kerala, deplored the condition of heritage sites.
"Old churches are being demolished without considering their historical value," said Father Payyappalli.
The priest said a central authority to conserve heritage, although a good idea, was not practical due to the division between Christians.
"The monuments are now under the control of different groups. They are holding on to them as if they are their exclusive property. They will not allow others access. Many are so obstinate they would not budge even if Jesus Christ came directly," he said.
A divided heritage
The ancient Kerala Christians, known commonly as the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala, are divided into at least eight different churches including two rites of eastern Catholics, the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara.
The two Eastern churches, now in dialogue with the Catholic Church, are among eight groups of Christians in Kerala, who claim that St. Thomas Apostle baptized their ancestors when he is believed to have traveled to India in 52 AD.
The Portuguese reformed the St. Thomas Christians which led to a division between them and the Catholic Church in 1653. Anglican and Protestant denominations grew under British colonial rule.
However, Catholics continue to be a majority and constitute five out of six million Christians in Kerala. Government statistics show that Christians form 18 percent of 33 million people in the state.
Ancient churches and historical sites are shared by the denominations. Some churches fight bitterly over them and there is not united forum to help protect the sites.
Robinet Jacob, head of tourism studies at Kerala's Mahatma Gandhi University, said that the Kerala Christians have shown no interest in conserving heritage sites, despite having several churches that are centuries old.
For example, Kottayam district alone has 15 churches more than 500-years-old. "Several such churches have been razed and new ones built in their place," Robinet said.
"The church should immediately set up a heritage department and take steps to protect these historically important sites," he said.
"Since tourism is a government department, the church has no control. If they do not consult us in implementing the project we cannot do anything," Father Payyappalli added.
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