Port project divides Christians in south India

Catholic archbishop opposes controversial plan, while Protestant bishop supports it
Port project divides Christians in south India

Archbishop Maria Callist Soosa Pakiam of Trivandrum addresses protesters against the Vizhinjam port project in Kerala state on Aug. 13. (Photo by ucanews.com reporter)

ucanews.com reporter, Thiruvananthapuram
India
August 14, 2015
A massive port project has divided Christians in southern India, with a Catholic archbishop opposing it and a Protestant Church of South India bishop backing it.  

Archbishop Maria Callist Soosa Pakiam of Trivandrum led a protest march Aug. 13 against the proposed Vizhinjam port. If implemented, he believes the project will destroy the livelihoods of 50,000 fishermen and displace thousands of families covering 12 parishes in his coastal archdiocese.

“We are not against development. But we want the rights of the poor fishermen to be protected," the archbishop said while addressing some 3,000 protesters, mostly Catholics, in front of the Kerala state secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram.

Just after the protest ended, Church of South India Bishop Dharmaraj Rasalam spoke in support of the project as he addressed media at the Press Club, 200 meters away from the protest venue.

“We want development of the area ... In my opinion the mega port project should not be delayed,” Bishop Rasalam said, adding that if the Catholic Church has reservations against the project, the government should negotiate with its leaders and sort out the issue. 

Most Catholics in the archdiocese belong to the lower fishing community caste while Protestants belong to the upper entrepreneurial Nadar caste, which will stand to benefit from the project.

Since the politically strong Christian community is divided on the issue, the government and the private firm contracted to construct the port may proceed without proper compensation for those affected, the Catholic archbishop fears. Christians make up some 20 percent of the 33 million people in Kerala.

Archbishop Pakiam told ucanews.com that such divisions are deliberately created through a “misinformation campaign” to help the government escape from concrete commitments to support the thousands of affected fisherfolk.

"I'm not speaking for my gains, and not just for Catholics. We are fighting for poor fisher people, who are Catholics, Muslims and Hindus. The government should respect their right to life," he said.

The Vizhinjam port project is expected to cost US$109.5 million and the government has declared a relief package of US$ 2.25 million for those facing displacement.

But thousands of fishing families "will get nothing from it as they do not have title deeds of their land to prove that they were displaced," the archbishop said.

"Unless the government comes up with a comprehensive rehabilitation package, we will not withdraw," he said.

Kadakampally Surendran, the district secretary for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Thiruvananthapuram, told ucanews.com that the archbishop has raised genuine fears about rehabilitation. “We will support the protest initiated by the archbishop,” he said.

“The government is using false campaigns against church leaders [and] is playing one against the other,” Surendran pointed out.

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