Kerala court petitioned on managing church wealth

Months after Christians' protest forced Indian state to shelve a law meant to control church assets, a new petition is moved
Kerala court petitioned on managing church wealth

Confraternity members of Infant Jesus Church in Kochi, Kerala, get ready for a Good Friday procession on April 19. Some Kerala Christians have moved court for a new system to manage church property. (Photo: Christopher Joseph/ucanews)

Four Christians in India's Kerala state have petitioned the state's High Court to ensure transparent and participatory management of assets of all Christian denominations.

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 cleric-led groups manage their assets.

"All citizens in the country are afforded equal protection by laws irrespective of religion, caste, creed or place of birth, but Christians have been discriminated," said the petition. It wanted the court to find a solution to end the discrimination.

The court accepted the petition on Nov. 12 and sent it for the opinion of the state government, now run by a communist-led alliance of leftist parties.

"We have approached the court after our efforts failed to have a participatory system to manage Christian wealth," said Santhosh Thomas, the first petitioner and a leading lawyer.

For the past two decades, a forum of Christian groups in Kerala has been demanding a state law to administer the properties and institutions of the Christian community, ensuring the participation of all stakeholders.

Currently, each denomination independently manages its assets and institutions. Most denominations, including Catholics, have diocese-level systems to own and operate their assets. But lay leaders have been complaining about clerical misuse.

While Muslims have the Waqf Board to manage their assets, Hindus and Sikhs have government-approved administrative boards to manage their temple assets.

Thomas said laypeople worked hard to help the Church accumulate wealth but "they have no say whatsoever in the management of it." 

The petition said other religions have "effective control regarding administration and spending of money to avoid squandering of public money." 

The court may help to establish "corresponding legislation" for Christians, the petition said. 

Warning of dire consequences 

The demand is not new, and the state government addressed it by asking the Law Reforms Commission of Kerala to draft a bill. 

The draft of the Kerala Church (Properties and Institutions) Bill, 2019, was published in March, seeking suggestions from the community. 

But most Christian denominations, including the Catholic Church, dismissed it as a move by the communist government to seize and control the Church's wealth.

The Inter-Church Council, a platform for all Christian churches in Kerala, warned the state government of dire consequences if the bill was passed. The government put the bill on hold.

Not all clergy are against the law, said Reverend Valson Thampu of the Protestant Church of South India, one of the four petitioners.

He told ucanews that the Christian community "has huge wealth" in terms of land, educational institutions, hospitals, health clinics and churches in the country.

"Corruption and mismanagement" of them at the hands of the clergy resulted in most Christians not benefiting from the Christian assets, said Reverend Thampu, former principal of New Delhi's prestigious St. Stephen's College.

He said the only solution is to have a law to allow participatory management of Christian wealth. 

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