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Should government manage Church properties?

  • India
  • August 10 2009
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A row has erupted among Catholics in India after several lay leaders demanded that the government be allowed to manage Church property.






Joseph Pulikunnel, director of the Indian
Institute of Christian Studies -- UCAN photo




Members of the clergy and other lay people are opposed to the demand.

The call for such management by the government was raised at a public forum during a July 28 seminar in Panaji, capital of Goa state in western India. The All India Catholic Union (AICU), a leading lay group in the country, was one of the co-hosts of the event.

Retired Supreme Court judge K.T. Thomas, one of the speakers, said a law for governing Church property would ensure accountability and transparency, and that every religious leader should welcome it. Those opposing the move could have some "sinister motive" to misuse the assets, he alleged.

Another speaker, Eduardo Falerio, a former federal minister, noted that in other parts of the world, government laws control Churches, but India allows for canon law. "Religious organizations cannot form a state within a state," the Catholic politician asserted.

The demand echoed a recommendation by the minority commission of a central Indian state earlier this year. The commission wanted the Madhya Pradesh government to set up a board to manage Church properties, similar to the Waqf (foundation) Board for Muslims.

That body, set up in 1995 to manage properties for religious and charitable purposes, supports Muslim institutions. It allocates money generated from the properties as well as from donations.

However, the government rejected the proposal after Church groups argued that unlike the assets the Waqf Board oversees, Church properties were purchased, not received from the government as charity.

However, others elsewhere are supporting the move for government management of Church properties. Most prominent among them is Joseph Pulikunnel, who directs the Indian Institute of Christian Studies in Kerala, southern India.

According to him, canon law allows bishops, as the Pope´s representatives, to administer Church property using legislative, executive and judicial powers. Though Church properties are acquired through contributions by its lay people, they, however, have no say in their administration, he noted.

"The head of the Vatican, a sovereign state, has taken over the administration of Church property in India, another sovereign state," Pulikunnel told UCA News, adding that this is a bad legal move.

He also points out that the property of other religions in India are managed by government-appointed committees. The exemption for the Church is discrimination, he argues and adds that a law to administer Church property is "overdue."






Divine Word Father Babu Joseph, spokesperson of
the Catholic Bishops´ Conference of India -- UCAN photo




He said the controversy arises from a misunderstanding. What some lay leaders are demanding is not that the government take over Church property, but a government law that allows elected representatives to form trusts and societies for the administration of parish and diocesan properties.

The AICU has, however, rejected the demand for government intervention "Transparency in Church affairs is an internal matter for the community. The laws of the land are sufficient to check any irregularity," asserts AICU spokesperson John Dayal, who is also a member of the federal government´s National Integration Council.

Dayal also points out that the Church uses its property to serve India´s poor. Most of its beneficiaries are the dalit (former "untouchables" in the Indian caste system) and tribal people. Government interference and subsequent political and administrative intervention could throttle "this critical freedom to reach out to the poorest of the poor," he stated.

Father Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops´ Conference of India (CBCI), dismisses the demand as preposterous. "Government interference is not warranted in the existing practices of management of Church property," he told UCA News.

Church property, the Divine Word priest pointed out, is already governed by the laws controlling societies and trusts. Church groups get their accounts audited and submit reports to the government regularly, he said, adding that the government can probe irregularities and take proper corrective action under current laws.
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