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Indian state retreats over church assets

Kerala bishops say the aim was to control church properties and blacken bishops as corrupt

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Indian state retreats over church assets

People praying inside St. Mary's Church in Manarcad, a major pilgrim center of the Jacobite Church in Kerala, India. The Jacobite Church was among Christian groups that opposed government moves to introduce a new law to manage church properties. (Photo by Christopher Joseph/ucanews.com).

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Opposition from church groups has forced the communist-led government in India's southern Kerala state to back down on a planned new law on the administration of church properties and other assets.

The local Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) stated March 1 that it would not proceed with relevant draft legislation, the Kerala Church (Properties and Institution) Bill, 2019.

Party state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan told the media that vested political interests continued to spread false rumours that the draft law would still be enacted.

Father Varghese Vallikkat, spokesperson for Catholic bishops in the state, said the turn-around was insincere and politically driven.

Protests, signature campaigns and statements against the draft bill began last month after the Kerala Law Reform Commission published the text on its website seeking public comment by March 6.

Everyone knew there was no need for a new law to govern church assets and, in any event, such measures would violate religious freedom guaranteed in the constitution, Father Vallikkat told ucanews.com.

The original intention was to project the Church as corrupt, he added.

"They want to keep discussion on this alive to target Christians, especially the socially and politically strong Catholic community," the priest said.

Church groups have been opposing the move since 2009 when a group of Christians demanded reforms within churches and drafted proposed new legal requirements.

The reformists argued that the core issue of corruption in churches rested on concentration of power in the hands of senior office holders, such as bishops.

The draft law suggested a participative system to manage church assets and a state-appointed tribunal to hear appeals in cases of complaints related to corruption, including misappropriations.

Communist agenda?

Church leaders such as Father Vallikkat said the communists wanted to project themselves as being friendly to Christians while also seeking to project the Catholic leadership as corrupt in order to wean away the faithful.

"It's all part of a very calculated, engineered move that has been going on for a decade,” he said, adding that the communists sponsored some Christian groups to act on its behalf in matters such as the now jettisoned draft property law.

Officially Christians form some six million of the state's 33 million people, but Catholics constitute about 60 percent of Christians, including Pentecostals and neo-Christian groups.

Ahead of national elections due in May, the communist agenda was to divide communities and question the honour of the Catholic hierarchy in order to win votes, Father Vallikkat warned.

But Catholic reformist leaders such as Reji Njallani dismissed such arguments as the deliberate spreading of un-truths.

Njallani, chairperson of the Open Church Movement, told ucanews.com that the draft law had absolutely nothing to do with the agenda of the communists or any other political parties.

"It came from the efforts of groups of Christians who thought lay Christians should have a say in the management of church assets, which is basically their property," he said.

"They want to end the monopoly of the bishops over temporal wealth, which is the source of all evils in the Church."

Njallani said that the majority of Catholics wanted such a law, but did not dare to come out openly for fear of antagonizing the hierarchy, which could lead to social exclusion in orthodox parish communities of the state.

The bishops, in a circular read out in all parishes across Kerala, asked Catholics to be vigilant against the "unfortunate and deplorable" draft law.

The draft bill was based on a false assumption that no system was in place to manage church properties, the bishops said, adding that such assets are covered by existing civil laws with courts able to deal with complaints.

The circular claimed there was a "dubious agenda" to place church assets under government control.

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