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Archbishop seeks local help as Indian govt blocks foreign aid

Trivandrum archdiocese’s license to receive foreign funds canceled for joining a 140-day stir against Vizhinjam seaport
Priests from Trivandrum archdiocese take part in the protest against Vizhinjam international seaport.

Priests from Trivandrum archdiocese take part in the protest against Vizhinjam international seaport. (Photo: latinarchdiocesetrivandrum.org)

Published: April 23, 2024 11:25 AM GMT
Updated: April 24, 2024 02:54 AM GMT

An archbishop in southern India has sought financial support from his people after the government canceled its license to receive foreign funds following Catholic fishermen's protest against a seaport that threatened their livelihood.

Archbishop Thomas J Netto of Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram), based in the capital of southern Kerala, sought his lay Catholics' contribution in a pastoral letter on April 21.

“The archdiocese fell into 'serious financial crisis'" after the pro-Hindu federal government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi “canceled its permit to accept foreign donations,” Netto said.

The archdiocese's license was canceled in February 2023 after Netto and senior priests joined a 140-day protest by the local people, most of them Catholics, who opposed the project, saying it would cause large-scale coastal erosion and threaten their shelters and livelihoods.

The protest was called off on Dec. 6, 2022, after the government promised compensation.

The multi-million dollar project, constructed under the public-private partnership model, was scheduled to be commissioned in 2019 but was delayed due to issues related to land acquisition. 

The government "froze our bank accounts last year after the agitation in Vizhinjam. The situation continues even now," the archbishop said.

Netto said in the pastoral letter that the archdiocese needs around 20 million rupees (some US$240,000) each year to train priests and care for retired clergy. However, the archdiocese's coffers are empty.

“We are unable to manage the daily expenses. Therefore, the archbishop sought help,” said vicar-general Father Eugine H Pereira.

Pereira told UCA News on April 23 that the Church’s outreach programs for economically weak families have suffered greatly.

The archdiocese had two license numbers to receive foreign funds — one for the archdiocese and one for its social service wing — and they were active until March 2022. In February 2023, the licenses were revoked, citing diocesan officials' involvement in the protest.

The port, called "India's gateway to international transshipment" due to its proximity to international shipping routes, became partially operational in October 2023 with the arrival of a Chinese ship carrying massive cranes.

The government promised to meet most of the protesters' demands. It agreed to pay a monthly rent of 5,500 Indian rupees to families of fishermen who had lost their homes due to the port construction and expedite the ongoing rehabilitation work.

“The government is yet to fulfill the promises,” noted Father Pereira.

Police registered 184 cases against the protestors, including the archbishop and priests. The government had agreed to withdraw them as part of the peace deal.

“But nothing has been done yet,” Father Pereira said.

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