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Controversial land deal revisits India's Eastern Church

Priests oppose a Vatican decision to sell more land to pay off losses suffered from earlier land sales

Controversial land deal revisits India's Eastern Church

Catholic priests and devotees pray during a Good Friday procession at a beach in Chowara, a village of fishermen in Ernakulam district of Kerala state, on April 2. (Photo: AFP)

A controversial land deal that rocked India's Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church four years ago has resurfaced after a group of priests called a Vatican restitution decree unjust and unethical.

Members of the college of consultors and finance body in Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese have decided to appeal to Singatrura Apostolica, the Church’s supreme adjudication authority, against the decree of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, a senior priest told UCA News.

The Vatican decree, which was leaked to the media on June 27, seeks to reduce the archdiocese's losses by selling two plots of archdiocesan land at a price and a buyer approved by the permanent synod of the Church.

The demand for restitution began in November 2017 after a group of archdiocesan priests publicly accused Cardinal George Alencherry of bypassing canonical bodies to sell off several plots of land over a period of two years, incurring a loss of some US$10 million to the archdiocese.

Cardinal Alencherry, the major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, also headed the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese at the time.

The Vatican intervened two years ago and removed Cardinal Alencherry from the administrative duties in the archdiocese. It later appointed Archbishop Antony Kariyil as Archiepiscopal Vicar to administer the archdiocese. 

More than 385 of some 400 priests in the archdiocese also signed a petition to the Vatican congregation rejecting the synod proposal

The Vatican also asked the Church’s synod to find a way to recover the losses.

The synod early this year suggested the sale of two pieces of land bought during the time of Cardinal Alencherry, suggesting that price appreciation of the land could make up for the losses incurred.

However, members of the archdiocesan college of consultors and finance body opposed the suggestion, saying the land legally belongs to them because they bought it with their own money. The income from its sale cannot be considered restitution of the losses.

More than 385 of some 400 priests in the archdiocese also signed a petition to the Vatican congregation rejecting the synod proposal.

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But the latest Vatican decree of June 21, signed by Cardinal Leonard Sadri, prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, insisted on the implementation of the synod’s restitution proposal.

The dicastery “is satisfied that this proposal of the permanent synod would definitely complete the restitution desired by the Apostolic See,” said the decree addressed to Archbishop Kariyil.

“In the undesirable eventually” of archdiocesan canonical bodies and priests not agreeing to the sales, "the congregation hereby derogates” the canonical norms that need their agreement for sales, “so that Your Grace may complete the transaction under the guidance of the synod.”

“Is this not absurd?” asked a priest, who wished to remain anonymous.

“We priests do not understand how could we recover our lost money when we sell the land, which is legally ours,” said the priest.

He said Archbishop Kariyil, head of both the college of consultors and the archdiocesan financial body, has supported the restitution proposal.

But the prime complaint against the cardinal was that he bypassed canonical bodies to sell off properties.

“Now the Vatican is officially asking the bishop to bypass the canonical bodies to do more such acts. What kind of justice is this?” he asked.

But we priests believe it is illegal and unethical to create and deal in black money

Another priest closely linked to the case said the issue involved is “immoral and unethical” land transactions. “We do not get answers to the question about how the money disappeared in earlier sales,” he said.

“The issue is this … the proposed sales will generate black money, some of which could be given to the archdiocese as restitution. But we priests believe it is illegal and unethical to create and deal in black money,” he said.

He said the synod also seems to have misled the Vatican to believe that Cardinal Alencherry registered the two pieces of land, which are now considered for sale, as a guarantee from a buyer to ensure that the archdiocese does not suffer losses in case of non-payment of money.

“But that’s not true. The archdiocese has spent money to buy this land,” he said.

The priests want the Vatican's highest authority to reconsider all facts of the case before making a final judgment, he said.

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