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Kerala govt buries proposed bill to ensure fair administration of Church properties after pressure from protest groups

Bowing under pressure from the Church, Kerala’s Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government has decided to bury a bill mooted by the Law Reforms Commission to ensure fair and transparent administration of church properties and funds besides a mechanism to adjudicate disputes within the Church.

The commission, headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice KT Thomas, was given the task in light of several disputes in various denominations of the church over alienation of the church properties by the members of the clergy and prelates.

The government took a U-turn following protests and threats from various quarters of the Church. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced the decision to hold back the bill, which was published in the commission’s website, on the eve of protests against the move called by various denominations of the Church.

As part of the protests, prayer meetings and rallies were held across the state on Sunday. A circular issued by Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC) — the apex body of bishops belonging to three Catholic rites in the state — calling for united struggle against the move was read out in all Catholic churches in the state on Sunday.

Earlier, the Inter Church Council, a common platform for all Christian churches in the state, had warned of dire consequences if the government went ahead with the legislation. A bishop had even threatened to launch a liberation struggle on the lines of the 1958 struggle, which brought down the first democratically elected Communist government in the state.

The chief minister’s assertion came a day after CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan clarified that the government would not pursue the bill. The U-turn has come as a shock to the reformists, who have been demanding transfer of power on temporal affairs of the Church now vested with the bishops to the laity.

 Kerala govt buries proposed bill to ensure fair administration of Church properties after pressure from protest groups

File photo of Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. PTI

Various laity organisations demanding the law are not happy with the bill prepared by the Thomas-led commission. They want the bill mooted by the previous commission headed by Justice late VR Krishna Iyer in 2009 to be enacted since it provides for a democratic system for managing the properties.

While the 2009 bill proposed trusts comprising elected members of the laity at the parish, diocese and state levels to administer the churches and its properties like schools, colleges, hospitals, estates, charitable institutions, commercial complexes etc, the current bill seeks only to establish a tribunal to adjudicate disputes regarding church properties and funds besides a system to subject the accounts to auditing.

The churches and its properties are now governed under the Canon Law, which empowers bishops to legislate, interpret and enforce a law related to Church administration. It also allows the bishops to impose tax on the faithful on the basis of their income.

The Church in Kerala adopted the Canon law-based administration after the Portuguese took control of the Church in the 16th century. Before that, the church and the properties were administered by church assemblies consisting of elected representatives of the laity.

After the departure of the Europeans, the Vatican Council, which is the topmost body of the Catholic Church, had allowed regional churches freedom to go back to their old traditions. However, the Church authorities in Kerala preferred to go by the European system as it vests vast powers with the bishops.

The reformists have been demanding implementation of the Church Act following several instances of gross misuse of the power by the bishops. Reji Njallani, national convenor of the Open Church Movement, which is in the forefront of the struggle for the Church Act, said that the power has also been leading to evils and aberrations in the Church resulting in erosion of the faith.

“Sexual scandals and financial scams rocking the Church of late have been alienating the faithful from the Church. If the Act is implemented, the bishops and the clergy will be able to concentrate solely on spiritual affairs. This will bring peace and unity in the Church,” he said.

He pointed out that there are less disputes over property among Hindus and Muslims since they are governed by the Devaswom Board and Waqf Board. Christians are the only religious community that is allowed to manage their properties.

The Church authorities have been opposing the Act, terming it as an encroachment into the rights of the community. A meeting of the Inter Church Council held at Changancherry in Kottayam district last week noted that the Church has been acting as per the Constitution and, therefore, there was no need for a law to govern them.

“The Constitution allows freedom of religion and freedom of holding properties and carrying out its administration. When various religions are enjoying the rights for freedom of faith and protection of their assets, making law only for Christians is not in accordance with secularism. Vested interest groups are behind the current move,” a joint statement issued after the meeting said.

The statement claimed that the Church has proper and transparent methods for the administration of its assets. “These systems have been in place for centuries and have been abiding the laws of the country and church rules. There are platforms in the Church to settle disputes among its members regarding assets and properties. Such issues are coming before the courts in the country also. In such a situation there is no relevance or need for a new law," said the statement.

Church activists believe that the government may have gone back on the move with an eye on the Christian vote bank. Christians constitute 18 percent of the population in the state. Shyju Antony, convenor of the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency (AMT), said political parties in the state are in the false notion that the members of the community would vote according to the diktats of the bishops.

“The times when Christians voted as per the directions of the bishops and churches have gone. They have been doing this by exploiting the faith of the people. A vast section of the community has realised this and has started coming out openly against the authorities,” said Shyju.

Political observers fear that the government’s decision to put the Church in the cold storage would help the Sangh Parivar and the Bharatiya Janata Party create communal divison in the state. They have been trying to consolidate the Hindus, citing minority appeasement by the successive governments in the state. The BJP has already made maximum use of the Sabarirmala issue to bring the Hindus under its fold.

NM Pearson, a Left-leaning analyst, said that the BJP may use the government decision on the Church Act in the coming Lok Sabha election to consolidate the Hndu votes further. This, he said, will cost the Left parties dearly in the state.

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Updated Date: Mar 03, 2019 20:13:53 IST