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MATHEW JOHN

Out of a total Christian population in India of 27 million plus, over 20 million are Catholics, and one-third of them are from Kerala. The Catholic Church in Kerala has three distinct denominations with independent identities, of whom the Syro Malabar Church has the largest following and is the wealthiest, with dioceses across the world, including the United States, Europe and Australia.

The numerical and financial clout of the Church in Kerala ensure that it has a major say not only in spiritual but also in temporal matters of the State. Deeply enmeshed in Kerala politics, some important church functionaries have seemingly turned a blind eye to Jesus Christ’s injunction to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”.  In the last few years, instead of shepherding the faithful to be exemplary citizens in a multicultural society, some custodians of the Catholic Church in Kerala have, among other acts of sacerdotal dereliction, wilfully fuelled communal tensions.

At a conference of bishops in early 2020, the issue of “love jihad” was discussed. Thereafter, a circular was issued warning believers that Christian women are being targeted by jihadists through inter-religious relationships and even being recruited to Islamic State. Such a ludicrous claim flies in the face of a recent research report based on government data that of the 449 conversions to other faiths in the last one year, 116 Christians converted to Hinduism and only 45 Christians opted for Islam. This patently false canard straight from the Hindu fundamentalists’ playbook is a blot on the intellectual integrity of the bishops who endorsed such a perfidious message. A Malayali friend was spot on with this throwaway line: “The bishops object to inter-faith, romantic love but have no problems condoning rape by one of their kind!”

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Which brings me to the huge controversy kicked up by Bishop Joseph Kallarangatt of the Syro Malabar church. Addressing a religious congregation at Kuruvilingad on 8th September, he definitively stated that through love jihad and narcotic jihad, the jihadis are out to “annihilate non-Muslims.”

His patently false statement was made within the sacred precincts of a church, which makes it all the more execrable. In exasperated response, the Chief Minister of Kerala quoted statistics of cases registered under the NDPS Act which clearly demonstrated that drug peddling and consumption had nothing to do with religion. He dismissed the bishop’s dangerously speculative rant as “puerile”.

Taking a cue from the hate-spewing bishop, a priest in Kuravilangad urged followers not to buy goods from Muslims or travel in autorickshaws driven by them. Stunned by the obnoxious and unchristian injunction, four nuns walked out of the church in protest. This admirable act of defiance in defence of Christian values is one more reason to induct women into the priesthood.

On top of the vilification of Muslims, a few days back, a Catholic priest in Kochi warned Catechism teachers that “Christian girls are being systematically lured into love marriages by some Ezhava boys.” The patriarchal mindset and the obsession of the clergy with inter-community marriages are matters of serious concern for the sane Christian.

It may be a coincidence but there is reason to believe that, mired in scandal, the top brass of the Syro Malabar Church has resorted to the ploy of deflecting the attention of believers by raising the bogey of threat to the faith from outside forces. The wild allegations against Muslims come at a time when important functionaries of the church are in the crosshairs of the law.

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In 2018, the Cardinal of the Syro Malabar Church was accused of masterminding a series of questionable land deals that have allegedly caused huge financial loss to the archdiocese. One allegation is that he registered a house and land meant for the underprivileged in his brother’s family’s name The property was not only undervalued but the sale deed was finalised without receiving the payment. Recently, the High Court dismissed his plea for quashing the six cases against him. But despite allegations of conduct akin to that of a land shark, he continues as the spiritual head of the Syro Malabar church.

An even more disgraceful scandal is the criminal case against Bishop Franco Mulakkal who is accused of raping a nun multiple times between 2014 and 2016. He was arrested but is presently on bail.  Even as the Kottayam court hears the case, the Church establishment, in true mafia style, has used a range of intimidatory tactics against the nuns and a priest who came out in support of the alleged victim.

Every institution, including the mighty religious establishments, needs to heed Bob Dylan’s warning – “the times, they are a-changing” – and address and perhaps moderate archaic rigidities in religious practice in order to be relevant in the post-modern age. The intolerant dogmatism of the Syro Malabar Church of Kerala on inter-faith marriages is a case in point.

In November 2020, a Catholic woman and a Muslim man were married in a church in Kochi, which was attended, among others, by a former bishop of Satna. In a most unchristian reaction, the church establishment ordered an inquiry into the event, obliging the hapless retired bishop to apologise for doing the decent thing and being present at the wedding of a family he knew well. The priests, bless them, who facilitated the marriage, were asked for explanations.  There followed “strict guidelines” to priests to tread carefully in matters of inter-faith marriages, the obvious intention being to discourage such marriages altogether. This is Stone Age thinking!

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Even more regressive is the welfare scheme for Catholics announced by the Syro Malabar Church under which, couples who are married after 2000 and have five or more children are offered financial assistance of Rs 1500 per month. The guidelines can plausibly be deemed anti-national for challenging every government’s policy of population control.

This simple-minded scheme targeting the poor, is actually digging a deep hole for the dispossessed, who find it difficult to survive, let alone raise one child. While this quixotic population multiplication project is a non-starter because of the robust good sense of Malayalis, one worries about the priorities and intent of the guardians of the Church in Kerala.

In these schismatic times, our religious identity trumps every other identity. One is first a Hindu, a Muslim, a Sikh or Christian even before one is recognised as an Indian. However eclectic a person’s beliefs and practice, he remains transfixed to his religious identity which is then viewed as a function of his attitude and thinking. In essence, our religion determines what a large section of society thinks of us. Call it religious stereotyping. As a Syro Malabar Catholic, albeit of the Sunday church genre, I have been embarrassingly discountenanced by the happenings in the Church in Kerala in the last few years. I realise that, as with other religions, the problem is not with the song but with the off-key singers!

(The writer is a former civil servant)