11/24/2020, 16.48
INDIA
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Orthodox church in Kerala at risk of demolition to make way for Highway 66

St George’s Orthodox Church in Cheppad is in middle of a dispute. Activists and Christian groups have launched a protest to save the building, including a hunger strike. The church’s 800-year-old apse contains prised murals and paintings. Under pressure, the authorities changed the original route, endangering the future of the church.

Delhi (AsiaNews) – Protests, including an 11-day hunger strike, are intensifying in India over the fate of St George’s Orthodox Church in Cheppad, Alleppy district (Kerala).

Recently the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) finalised plans to extend National Highway (NH) 66, which would require tearing down part of the church.

Activists and Christian groups have geared up for a fight to save the building, which has over 800 years of history behind it. According to scholars, the church – famous for the antiquities and mural paintings on the walls of the apse (Madbaha) – dates back to the 12th century.

Although the structure was rebuilt in 1952, the apse at its eastern end, has remained intact to preserve its value and identity. To fight its destruction, the faithful have set up a Facebook page, with thousands of members.

“The authorities have laid stones marking the new alignment of the NH. Half the church building will have to be demolished and it will not be possible to retain the rest of the structure, including the apse,” said Fr Alexander Vattakkattu, vicar of the church.

Initially, he added, “The authorities fixed the initial alignment avoiding the church. But they changed it, we think, under pressure.”

Forty-seven murals are arranged in three rows on three walls of the church. The paintings include those of St Paul with a sword, the birth of Jesus Christ, the kiss of Judas, the Last Supper, Christ being flogged by soldiers and other scenes from the crucifixion as well as the Old Testament.

These paintings, a blend of Persian art and Kerala's mural artwork, have drawn enthusiasts from far and wide. According to the Archaeological Survey of India, the murals are around 600 years old and were drawn using extracts from green leaves and fruits.

In 1956, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie visited the church and gifted many items, including an Ethiopian Cross, a Holy Bible with gold engravings written in the Amharic language, and a statue of the Virgin Mary, which are now preserved in the church museum.

Efforts have been made to get the church listed as a heritage monument under UNESCO but this will come to naught if part of the church is torn down.

The planned road was supposed to run in front of St George’s Church, aligned on the other side where buildings are less than 75 years old without any historic value. But their owners exerted pressures on the authorities to change plans.

“At a time when there is renewed awareness all over the world about preserving heritage structures, it is ironic that the ancient church has to face this ordeal," said Mr Philipose, a local parishioner.

For NHAI officials, changes in alignment were made based on a court order and after getting the nod from the State government. “The court directed [us] to acquire land equally on both sides,” said an NHAI official. (N.C.)

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