Dr. M Kurien Thomas – OCP Media Network Exclusive
OCP Research Associate – Dept. of Church Research and Studies
July 2015. Updated – November 2018.
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Ecumenism was a novelty in the Christian world a century ago. While every denomination was nesting in their doctrinal shell, inter-Church relations were considered absurd. Politics, lack of communication and transport kept the Orthodox Churches away from interaction amid themselves. Perhaps except in the Holy City of Jerusalem, the interaction was almost zilch until the middle of the twentieth century, where also the relations remained hostile most of the time.
Even in this scenario, the Malankara Orthodox Church of India, a member of the Oriental Orthodox community in the south-west corner of the Indian Peninsula, and the Serbian Orthodox Church of the Byzantine community in Eastern Europe developed warm relations as early as in 1936. It expanded even to the mutual visits of the hierarchs in 1937. The amazing story of the brotherhood of two geographically remote Churches of the Pan-Orthodox community was initiated by the Serbian Orthodox Confessor Saint Dositej Vasić of Zagreb.
Saint Dositej of Zagreb
Metropolitan Dositej was born in Belgrade in 1887. He took Masters of Theology from the Kiev Religious Academy in 1904. He spent two years at the University of Berlin, studying theological and philosophical science, followed by philosophy studies at Leipzig. From 1907 to 1909, he taught at the Seminary of St Sava in Belgrade. He studied at the Sorbonne and the College of Social Sciences, Paris, from 1907 to 1909, and in Geneva from 1910 to 1912. Besides his native Serbian, he was fluent in Russian, Czech, German and French. He also learned Bulgarian and English.
In 1899, he was ordained to the rank of the monk at the monastery of Manasija. In May 1913, the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Kingdom of Serbia elected him as a bishop. Subsequently, he was consecrated as the Bishop of Nis on 25 May 1913. It was a herculean effort to tend his sheep through catastrophic situations created by successive wars and the earthquake of 1927. The Bolshevik revolution of Russia in 1917 also added to his burden. The Russian people in exile were dying of hunger in the 1920s. Bishop Dositej was part of the delegation of the Royal Yugoslavian Government in the International League for the facilitation of hungry Russians, and preached throughout Yugoslavia, urging mercy and brotherly love for the Russian people.
In 1931, Bishop Dositej was appointed as the first Metropolitan of the newly established Zagreb Diocese. He is described as an excellent teacher at the seminary, a great organizer, a good orator, well-mannered and full of Christian goodness and a true patriot. He was sent abroad by the Serbian Orthodox Church frequently as the delegate to Geneva, Basel, Athens, and Bulgaria. Metropolitan Dositej visited India during the winter of 1936/37.
During World War II, Metropolitan Dositej was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazi-controlled regime of Croatia. He was brutally tortured in the prison. It is accused that Roman Catholic nuns also actively participated in enhancing his agony while he was hospitalized. Later, the Germans transported the unconscious and terribly battered Metropolitan Dositej by train from Zagreb to Belgrade, where he was housed in a Gestapo prison. Later, Metropolitan Dositej was transferred to a sanatorium since he was in critical condition. Even though he escaped a sudden death, he never recovered mentally or physically from the torture.
Metropolitan Dositej spent the last days of his life at the Belgrade Monastery of the Ascension under the care of the sisters of the Russian Abbess Angelina. He entered into eternal rest on 14 January 1945 due to the physical and psychological wounds from the persecution. He was laid to rest in the Churchyard of this monastery. On 22 May 1998, the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church declared Metropolitan Dositej (Vasić) of Zagreb and Ljubljana as a Confessor. Hero-confessor Dositej of Zagreb and Vavedenje was added to the list of the Serbian saints by the decision of the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church in May 2000. On 13 May 2008, his sacred relics were transferred to the monastery Church from the tomb in which he had rested since 15 January 1945.
Saint Dositej in India
According to the Serbian cyber data, limited information is available on the visit of Metropolitan Dositej to India. It is believed that he visited during the winter of 1936/3 and worked with the Russian mission among the Indians. Metropolitan Dositej was preaching and even visited the Malabar Coast. Great was the love of Christ and courage of the convert Hindus because they were persecuted by the majority Hindus. Missionary work in India was dangerous. Metropolitan Dositej encountered the repeated appearance of a Cobra behind an icon in one of the Churches where he served. He was later informed that a believer died from its bite as well.
We do not have extensive evidence to confirm or counter-check his mission in India or even the Russian Orthodox Mission in India. But the records of the Malankara Orthodox Church confirm his visit to India, especially to Malabar, now known as the state of Kerala in India, in 1936/7. Metropolitan Dositej participated in the World Conference of Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) held at Mysore, India from January 2, 1937, onwards. According to the available sources, he visited India in connection with this conference.
According to the Indian sources, Metropolitan Dositej visited Kottayam, Kerala, India along with F.T. Pianoff in January 1937 after the Mysore conference. Feodor T. Pianoff (1889-1969), was a leader of the Russian Student Christian Movement. He left Russia in 1918. He had worked for YMCA and actively participated in the activities of the Orthodox Theological Institute, Paris. As the guest of Catholicos His Holiness Baselious Geevarghese II, he stayed for about two weeks at Old Seminary, Kottayam, with the former. By sharing his joyful experience with the Catholicos to His Holiness Patriarch Vernava of Serbia, he established the relation between the Malankara and Serbian Churches. He provided a colorful impression about the Malankara Church to Patriarch Vernava.
Father Andronic, the Russian
Another important event during the Indian tour of Metropolitan Dositej was his meeting with Father Andronic, a Russian monk-priest. Father Andronic stayed at the monastery of Transfiguration, Mount Tabor, Pathanapuram, Kerala, India for nine years as a visitor. He expressed his desire to engage in farming since he studied the same while in Germany. The monastery allocated one of its detached farmlands at Pattazhi, Kerala, India at his disposal. He constructed a small building and a chapel in the property along with his farming activities. He visited several Malankara Orthodox parishes and attended meetings, where he preached the gospel. Perhaps this was referred to as ‘the Russian mission among the Indians’ in the Serbian records about Metropolitan Dositej.
Metropolitan Dositej also visited the monastery of Transfiguration during his Indian voyage. During his stay at the monastery, he enlightened the monks. From there, he visited Father Andronic at Pattazhi and elevated him as Archimandrite. Later, Father Andronic left India, since his services were requested among the Russian migrants in the North Americas. Even after his departure, Father Andronic was in warm relations with the Malankara Orthodox Church. He even gifted three sets of chalices for the diaspora parishes of the Malankara Orthodox Church in the 1950s.
Visit of Catholicos Geevarghese II to Belgrade
As the result of the report given by Metropolitan Dositej, Patriarch Vernava invited Catholicos Geevarghese II to Yugoslavia, which was accepted by the latter. Catholicos Geevarghese II planned to visit Yugoslavia after his participation in the second World Faith and Order Conference assembly at Edinburgh, the UK in August 1937. Catholicos Geevarghese II invited Patriarch Vernava as the chief guest of the silver jubilee celebrations of the establishment of the catholicosate in India scheduled for 1937.
Unexpectedly, Patriarch Vernava passed away on 23 July 1937. Catholicos Geevarghese II received this tragic news en route to Edinburgh. On 25 July, he conducted a memorial service at Paris, France, together with Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Eulogius Georgievsky of Paris. As a result, Catholicos Geevarghese II considered calling off his Yugoslavian trip after the awful incident. But Metropolitan Dositej, who was the locum tenens of the patriarchal throne and as the president of the synod, insisted they continue with the scheduled tour. Along with this, the companions of Catholicos Geevarghese II encouraged him to carry on. Finally, he agreed to visit Belgrade.
Catholicos Geevarghese II in Yugoslavia
Immediately after the Edinburgh conference, Catholicos Geevarghese II left for Yugoslavia, with Abo Alexios O.I.C. They reached Belgrade via Paris by train on 21 September 1937. The Indian primate was received with a royal welcome by Metropolitan Dositej and a large array of Serbian clergy. Catholicos Geevarghese II was honored with the same reverence extended to their patriarch. He was made to sit on the patriarchal throne in all parishes and monasteries visited. He was addressed as ‘Patriarch Basali’ in the Holy Eucharist and Litany. Metropolitan Dositej assigned two bishops, Bishop Seraphim and Bishop Nicholas, as the ‘Bishops in Waiting’ to accompany Catholicos Geevarghese II during his travel. On 23 September, Catholicos Geevarghese II addressed a gathering of about 1,000 Serbian priests and several bishops. On the next day, he visited the Military Museum and National Museum in Belgrade. On 26 September, Catholicos Geevarghese II visited the monasteries of Pustinja and Žiča, followed by a visit to the famous Đurđevi stupovi on the very next day. He was received by clergy and laity at all Serbian parishes en route joyfully. He was accompanied in these visits by Bishop Seraphim and Bishop Nicholas of the Serbian Church.
Catholicos Geevarghese II and Abo Alexios O.I.C. left Yugoslavia on 30 September 1937 for India via Rome. Metropolitan Dositej, Metropolitan Anastasy Gribanovsky of Kishinev, the then prelate of the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile, four bishops and a huge gathering assembled at the railway station to see them off. They arrived back at Kottayam, India, on 30 October 1937. The emergence of the Second World War, the captivity and martyrdom of Metropolitan Dositej followed by the political restructuring of the Balkan countries made further communications and visits impossible. Hence, once strongly built relations were broken. The visit of Catholicos Geevarghese II was remembered as a sweet memory at Belgrade even in 1952.
Indian documents reveal the above-mentioned information about the Indian connection to Metropolitan Dositej and the Serbian Church at large. There are still some unsolved mysteries. They are as follows
- Did Metropolitan Dositej have any knowledge about the Malankara Orthodox Church prior to his arrival in India?
- Did he ever get in touch with Abo Alexios during the latter’s tour in England (for more than six months) in 1933?
- Did Metropolitan Anastasy Gribanovsky of Kishinev have any role in the visit of Metropolitan Dositej to India? The former met Catholicos Geevarghese II in Jerusalem on 24 September 1934. He urged for close relations between Indian and Russian Churches during that meeting. As the chief organizer of the Russian Church in Exile, he often visited Belgrade as well.
- Was Metropolitan Dositej pre-known to Father Andronic while in Germany? If not, for what reason did he elevate him as an Archimandrite?
- Did the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile in general or F.T. Pianoff, in particular, have any role in the visit of Metropolitan Dositej to Kerala?
These questions cannot be answered on the basis of the available Indian sources.
Additional Note: In 2010, Metropolitan Gregorious Gabriel of Trivandrum of the Indian Orthodox Malankara Church attended the Enthronement of the Serbian Patriarch His Holiness Irinej at the Patriarchate of Pec in the Serbian Province Kosovo. The above-displayed picture of the visit of His Holiness Geevarghese II to Serbia was presented as a special gift to Patriarch Irinej. The gift was prepared by Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE. Apart from that, Fr. Dr. K.M. George of India visited Patriarch Irinej a few years back. OCP Secretary George Alexander met with His Eminence Metropolitan Porfirije of Zagreb-Ljubljana of the Serbian Orthodox Church at Thessaloniki in 2014. In 2018 George Alexander met Patriarch Irinejand visited several institutions of the Serbian Church in Belgrade. A delegation (Metropolitan Zacharias Nicholovas, Fr. Abraham Thomas, Fr. Ashwin Fernandez) from the Ecumenical Relations Dept. of Indian Orthodox Malankara Church visited Serbian Patriarch in 2018 as well. Hence, these personalities of Indian Orthodox origin were able to renew the historic connection between the two Churches.
1. http://orthodoxwiki.org/Dositheus_ (Vasich) _of_Zagreb, B.) orthodoxhr.blogspot.com/…/sv-dositej-zagrebacki.htm
4. The Orthodox Sabha Magazine, Chingam 1113
5. Malayala Manorama, 8 January, 1937, B) The Sydney Morning Herald, February 20, 1937
6. http://samlib.ru/j/jarich_irina_georgiewna/russkiepisma.shtml, b.)http://www.borisogleb.de/lieb3.html)
7. The Orthodox Sabha Magazine, Chingam 1113
8. Thoma Mar Dionysius Metropolitan, cf in Chandanappally, Dr. Samuel, Malankara Sabha Pithakkanmar Vol II, 2012, Chandanappally, pp 657-8
9. Alaxios Mar Theodosius Metropolitan, cf in The Indian Orthodox Church Mission, The History and Report of the Orthodox Parishes outside Malabar, 1955, Madras. P 5
10. The Orthodox Sabha Magazine, Chingam 1113
11. Kuriakosu Remban, M.C., Edinburgho Yaathra, Kottayam, 1938
12. Philipose Mar Theophilus, Malankara Sabhayude Yasassuyarthy, cf in Paulose OIC (Ed), Bethaniyude Panimalar, 1976, Ranni-Perunad. p 40 -1
13. Thomas, Dr. M. Kurian Thomas, Kurichy Bavayude Moonnu Paradesha Yathrakal, 2015, Kottayam, pp 293 -5
14. Philipose Mar Theophilus, cf in Thomas, Dr. M. Kurian, Abo Alaxios – Nadithulyam Saantham, 2015, Kottayam, p 66
15. Kasheesha, C, M, Skriah, Jerusalem Yathra, 1935, Kottayam. p 172
OCP News Service – Dept. of Church Research and Studies