Thousands of Christians march through the streets of Kerala state capital Thiruvananthapuram on Nov. 27 demanding a law to manage church properties. (Photo supplied)
As thousands of Christians marched shouting slogans demanding a law to end alleged clerical abuse in managing church assets in southern India's Kerala state, Catholic officials denounced it as an unwarranted move.An estimated 50,000 Christians cutting across denominations, including the Catholic Church, demonstrated near the state secretariat in capital Thiruvananthapuram on Nov. 27, demanding a law to administer all Christian properties in a participatory and transparent manner."The move is condemnable and worrying," said an official statement from the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council.The All Kerala Church Act Action Council, a collective of Christian groups from various denominations, spearheaded the movement, describing it as a "Church Act Crusade."Organizers claimed some 200,000 people joined the protest, arriving from various parts of the state at Kerala's southernmost city, the seat of the government.The state's High Court awaits the opinion of Kerala's communist-led government on a petition to enact a law and end clerical dominance in the administration of Christian assets. The court on Nov. 12 wanted to know the government's stance on the petition filed by four Christians, seeking to end Christians being discriminately treated in managing their assets.The petition claimed India's major religions, such as Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, have separate and legally recognized bodies to manage their properties. But Christians have no such organization and management of properties and assets has been left to clerics."This demand is a mischievous move," said Father Antony Thalachellor, public relations officer of the state's Syro-Malabar Church."We don't need any regulatory body. We manage our properties well as per the existing laws in the country," said Father Thalachellor, speaking for the socially dominant Catholic group who constitute roughly 4 million of some 7 million Christians in the state. The official statement of the bishops' council said some disputes within a couple of denominations had been blown out of proportion to demand a new "law for the entire Christian churches in the state, which is not acceptable."The council consists of bishops from all three Catholic rites of Syro-Malankara, Latin and Syro-Malabar, which together comprise some 5.5 million people, the vast majority of Christians in the state of some 33 million people.The bishops' council said the Catholic Church complies "with the laws of the land" in acquiring and managing its assets and institutions. It has "its well-established bodies within it to regulate" management of its assets, said the statement."Therefore, there is no need for any other agency or regulatory body to manage its assets," asserted the bishops' statement.Claims of misplaced claims The decade-old demand for such a law forced the government to press its Law Reforms Commission to service. It prepared a draft — the Kerala Church (Properties and Institutions) Bill — that was published in March seeking suggestions.The Catholic bishops, together with leaders of Christian denominations, have opposed any law to regulate their properties. They argued the law will lead to government interference in the internal functioning of their churches.The government shelved a draft law early this year following opposition from hierarchies, but the massive demonstration shows Christians in the state feel the need of it, said Rev. Valson Thampu, a priest of the Protestant Church of South India and one of the four petitioners in the High Court. "A groundswell of popular unrest and frustration at the alarming signs of spiritual and moral decay have erupted in the form of an unprecedented protest march," said Rev. Thampu, who claimed some 200,000 people joined the protest.Lawyer Induleka Joseph, a Catholic who took part in the protest, told ucanews that the claims of transparency and lay participation in managing properties of the Catholic dioceses in the state are displaced. "Bishops or bishop-led trusts own the properties. Lay people have no role in the decisions on sale and purchase of properties. The parish committees and diocesan committees, at best, have just advisory roles," she said. "Only those who toe the line of the priests or bishops are nominated to such committees. That's why we are pressing for a law to regulate church properties."