Their strict intermarriage customs are meant to preserve ancient bloodlines that date back to the fourth century in India and the Middle East, so many families in the Knanayan Syriac Orthodox church know each other, regardless of where they live.
The world, however, would learn of their rich cultural and religious heritage only after a fatal shooting at a church in the suburbs just west of New York City. The tragedy cast light on the lesser-known Christian sect of the Syriac Orthodox called the Knanaya, whose members largely hail from the South Indian coastal state of Kerala.
The close-knit group is estimated by church officials to have about 50,000 to 100,000 members worldwide.
St. Thomas Syrian Orthodox Knanaya Church in Clifton, New Jersey, was founded in 1987 for a community that began more than a decade earlier as Knanaya women came from India as exchange students in nursing and pharmacy, and stayed.
Today, some services are in English as the church fills with children of the first-generation immigrants who founded it.
Church members can trace their roots back to 72 families that traveled from the Middle East to India in 345AD to do missionary work.
“They brought the Bible to India, and the Syriac-Aramaic language, as was spoken by Jesus,” said the Reverend Thomas Abraham, who heads the congregation. “The liturgy and the Mass was celebrated in Syriac, and even now, we use it.”
Aramaic language is mixed with Malayalam, an Indian language spoken in Kerala, and Knanayans follow many of the same Orthodox traditions as the Syrian church.
But preserving bloodlines and traditions can be a challenge with a new American-born generation.
“We are losing some to intermarrying,” Abraham 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.”
But it was neither religion nor culture that cast the spotlight on the tiny community. Rather, a family argument turned tragic during service the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
Joseph Pallipurath, 27, told authorities he believed church members were blocking his attempts to contact his wife, who had left him three months before. The couple was married just over a year ago in India and moved to Sacramento, California, in January. Their marriage had been arranged.
Pallipurath’s wife, Reshma James, 24, had come to New Jersey to stay with her cousin to escape what relatives said was an abusive marriage. She had even taken out a restraining order against her husband.
Witnesses say someone was trying to break up the argument between Pallipurath, his wife and her cousin, Silvy Perincheril, when Pallipurath opened fire with a handgun just as the congregation was finishing its prayers for the dead, a staple of weekly worship service.
James fell dead. Her would-be rescuer, Dennis Mallosseril, who maintained the church’s Web site, died a day later. Perincheril remains hospitalized, with a gunshot wound in her head.
Pallipurath was captured in Georgia the next day and arraigned on charges of murder, attempted murder and weapons offenses.
Word of the shooting reached the Knanayan archbishop, Mor Sevarios Kuriakose, who traveled immediately from India to New Jersey to mourn with the congregation and comfort the families of the dead.