Appellate court upholds ruling in dispute over ownership of Syrian Orthodox Church property

By Dee Thompson | Nov 24, 2017

HARRISBURG – The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has upheld a lower court's ruling in an ongoing dispute between two warring factions of the Syrian Orthodox Church both seeking to establish who legally owns the St. Mary’s Knanaya church property in Philadelphia.

On. Oct. 17, the appellate court upheld the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County's October 2016 ruling that the two factions will have to share the church property until a decision has been reached by the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County regarding the parties' arguments. 

The two factions are the Chacko Faction, consisting of St. Mary’s Knanaya Church Inc., the Reverend Father Chacko Punnoose, Reji Philip, Jake Puthiamadathil, Kuriakose M. Abraham, Renny Eranackal, Tony Alummootil, Cherian Mathew and the North American Knanaya Diocese Inc. 

The Abraham Faction includes Father E.M. Unnikunju Abraham, Joby Joseph, Stephen Mathew, John Mathew, Thampi Pothen, Kutty Kurien, Kenny Pothen, Tobin Thomas, Abraham Cherian, and North American Knanaya Diocese, Inc. 

The two factions are part of the Syrian Orthodox Church and this specific church was incorporated in 1991 as part of the North American Knanaya Diocese, which is part of the Malankara Syrian Knanaya Community affiliated to the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East. The governing body is the Malankara Syrian Knanaya Community Constitution.  

According to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania’s Nov. 16, order, the court of common pleas issued an order on Oct. 5, 2016, stating: “Specifically, the order required the parties to share possession of the church property on alternating weeks from Wednesday to Wednesday and to share possession on Sundays, with the Abraham Faction having access from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and the Chacko Faction from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. In addition, the parties were to ‘give 24 hours[’] notice to access the property on non-possessory days for recognized religious observances such as funerals[] [and] religious holidays[.]’”  

In 2016, the Chacko Faction claimed it had been locked out of the church, which is why the order was issued. The Abraham Faction disputed the order, raising the question of whether or not a court should intervene in a religious dispute.

The root of the problem centers around who is the actual patriarch of the church and therefore the owner of the property. 

“The factions agree that, at the head of the church, is the patriarch and beneath him are four regional units each headed by a metropolitan. The Abraham Faction maintains it is the Metropolitan Silvanos Ayub who governs the American, Canadian and European regional unit after he was appointed by the patriarch in 2009. The Chacko Faction maintains Chief Metropolitan Severios Kuriakose of India controls,” according to the order.

Several injunctions were filed in the lower court regarding who should be able to hold Sunday services at the church, because only one Holy Eucharist should be held on a Sunday at a particular church, according to doctrine. However, there is no religious question at the heart of the lawsuit originally filed. The appellate court agreed with the Chacko Faction on that.

“The Chacko Faction responds that this dispute is not doctrinal in nature and relates solely to the allegedly improper filing of corporate documents and transfer of church assets. As such, it contends that neutral principles of property and corporate law can be applied by the court to settle this dispute without intruding into ecclesiastical matters,” according to the order

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the rulings of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County and ruled that “We cannot find that the trial court erred or abused its discretion by issuing an interim order to maintain the status quo until additional evidence could be submitted when the Abraham Faction elected not to present additional evidence,” according to the order.

Therefore the lower court’s ruling that the two factions have to share the property until the question is decided was proper.

The Commonwealth Court also ruled that no bond is required of the Chacko Faction because the Abraham Faction didn’t raise the issue after the trial court ruled to stay the proceedings.

The case was heard before Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer, Judge Robert Simpson, and Senior Judge James Gardner Colins.

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