By convention, the cabinet of ministers in Kerala assembles on Wednesdays at the State Secretariat to air and address concerns related to governance. Beyond the barred gates, the aggrieved hold court, without fail, in Statue Junction – the city’s nerve centre. Even in this charged climate, the frisson of disquiet registered as over 1.5 lakh ‘crusaders’ laid siege to the centre of executive power from mid-morning to dusk last Wednesday (Nov 27) was palpably different. For one, it was a decade in the making.
Organised by the All Kerala Church Act Action Council (AKCAAC) – an umbrella body of Christian reformist groups cutting across denominational lines, the ‘Church Act Crusade’ called for the government to bring into force the Kerala Christian Church Properties and Institutions Trust Bill (2009). The draft Bill, as outlined by then State Law Reforms Commission chair, late Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, sought to create a transparency and oversight mechanism in the administration of church properties and assets as also other temporal affairs.
“For centuries, Christian parishes have been ruled by bishops and their chosen vicars as their fiefdoms through unregistered trusts. There is no proper avenue for the faithful to seek recourse under civil law, which has caused much misery. This bill intends to give the property and power to the real owners: the people,” said Bar Yuhanon Ramban, a priest of the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church who heads MACCABI (Malankara Action Council for Church Act Bill Implementation) – one of AKCAAC’s constituent groups.
The Bill, he said, would implement a three-tier system of registered charitable trusts: constituted at the parish level through an assembly elected by the faithful, at the diocese level and at the denominational level. This will both root out corruption and provide every parishioner, laity member and seminarian the legal protection as guaranteed by their basic constitutional rights, the Ramban added.
Public appetite for a Church Act was whetted by both the ‘Save Our Sisters’ campaign in the wake of rape accusations against Jalandhar diocese Bishop Franco Mulakkal and a corruption scandal that emerged last year in which Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, was accused of corruption for approving the sale of church land for a below market-value price.
It was hugely symbolic then to have Sister Lucy Kalapura, the nun who was dismissed from her Franciscan Clarist Congregation for participating in the protests against Bishop Mulakkal, inaugurate the crusade. “The churches were built up on the faith and sweat of the devotees, but are under the control of the heads of each denomination even as the rest of us are reduced to slaves. By lusting for power and money and indulging in sexual exploitation, their anti-Christian behaviour has destroyed spirituality and sanctity of the faith. A brotherhood of believers, using the Church Act as a weapon, has risen to stand up to them. This is a new dawn,” said Sr. Lucy, urging Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to implement the bill at the earliest.
The Bill has been a headache for successive Left Democratic Front (LDF) governments (the reformers considered the issue a non-starter during the Oommen Chandy-led UDF government in the intervening years): under then Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan, the government in 2009 did not even introduce the draft Bill in the Assembly, while the present regime has rejected outright any possibility of tabling either that Bill or another proposed earlier this year. The Law Reforms Commission of Kerala under Justice K.T. Thomas published the draft Kerala Church (Properties and Institutions) Bill (2019) on its website in February and urged all stakeholders to submit suggestions.
It was met with near-uniform hostility: various church bodies took out protest marches and issued circulars decrying governmental interference in spiritual matters while reformist groups have termed it a “watered-down” Bill and attribute this paring down to ‘hidden agendas’ and “foul play” owing to the “suspected influence” of the bishops.
“It makes no mention of the registered trusts that were core to Justice Iyer’s Bill. Even so, the bishops raised a hue and cry about government interference in spiritual matters, but that was just baseless scare-mongering to misguide the believers. No provision in the 2009 bill enables this,” advocate Boris Paul, AKCAAC Chairman, said.
“At present, almost 90 per cent of parishes are run by unregistered trusts and by-laws –a number of which are contrary to Indian law. The Church Act would open these up to scrutiny by allowing examinations of their legal standing. The Canon law states that properties of the Catholics should be administered as per the law of the land. Article 26 (b) of the Constitution allows religious authorities to gather properties and administer their assets – but in accordance with the law. The government has a responsibility to enact the Church Act,” Paul added.
Opposing the implementation of the Church Act in any incarnation is the powerful Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference (KCBC), which has continually questioned the intentions both of the Bill and its supporters. Prior to the Lok Sabha elections, the KCBC issued a statement – jointly attributed to its president Archbishop M. Soosa Pakiam, vice-president Bishop Yoohanon Mar Chrysostom and Archbishop Mar Mathew Moolakkatt – that said, “According to Article 26, it is the members of the religious group that should decide on who should govern the properties of the group. Neither the state nor any outside entities has anything to do with this. If any member of the church is not satisfied with the present system, then he or she should raise it at the concerned avenue within the church. Neither the Catholic Church nor any recognised Church organisations had demanded such a Bill.”
“Demands expressed by unrecognised or namesake organisation run by a minority is not the general opinion of the laity but that of isolated groups who are unsatisfied within the church. The action of the law reforms commission to come up with a suggestion for a new law based on the demands of such persons is raising various concerns and the intentions behind it are doubtful,” noted the circular, which was read out during the subsequent Sunday mass at all constituent KCBC churches.
According to KCBC spokesperson Father Varghese Vallikkatt, neither the protests nor the draft bills are a big deal. “These protests are based out of a mistaken assumption that there is no law or authority guiding the church and management of its properties. They want to make such a law, but will that solve all the issues of the Christian faithful in Kerala? Whenever there is any issue within the church, the church has its internal laws, the Canon Law, that governs and guides its decision-making and issues resolution. Anything with regard to public life and civic life, the church will follow the law of the land. No court in the country has pointed out that there is any conflict between the Church law and Indian law. Nor has any government brought forward any Church Act. It is not very relevant, nor is it what the community needs at present,” he said.
With no change to the status quo likely ahead of state polls in 2021, both sides appear content to lay claim to having captured the tussle’s centre of gravity: the hearts and minds of the faithful. The reformist organisations claim that the majority of the faithful only “go with the flow” because they fear reprisal on from high, while the church bodies consider the agitation the result of fringe discontents looking to stoke trouble. If nothing else, the sheer scale of the Crusade has marked it out as a movement with momentum on its side.
By Siddharth Premkumar in Thiruvananthapuram
A shorter, edited version of this appeared in print