On September 8, Joseph Kallarangatt, a Catholic bishop of Pala in Kerala, launched a gratuitous, hate-filled tirade against Muslims. With little evidence to support his absurd claim, he declared that Muslims had launched a “narcotic jihad” to lure members of other religious groups to become drug addicts.

Another way the community was attempting to “annihilate non-Muslims”, the bishop said, was through “love jihad” – a conspiracy theory that claims that Muslim men lure women into marriage so that they can later be converted to Islam.

In an exasperated response, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan quoted statistics of cases registered under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act to demonstrate that drug peddling and consumption had nothing to do with religion. He dismissed the bishop’s claims as “puerile”.

Past instances

The bishop’s diatribe against Muslims was not a one-off proposition to disrupt the communal harmony that has existed in Kerala over the decades. In early 2020, bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church issued a warning to believers that Christian women are being targeted by “jihadists” through inter-religious relationships and even being recruited to Islamic State through this method.

These claims flew in the face of reality. According to government figures, of the 449 people in Kerala who converted to other faiths, 116 Christians converted to Hinduism and only 45 Christians opted for Islam.

Even the lesser fry have got into the act. Taking a cue from the bishop, a priest in Kuravilangad delivered a sermon urging followers not to buy goods from Muslims, travel in autorickshaws driven by them or eat biriyani, a dish associated with the community. Stunned by this obnoxious and unchristian injunction, four nuns walked out of the church in protest.

At the beginning of October, Bishop Joseph Kallarangatt was at it again. Writing in a church-run publication called Deepika on Gandhi Jayanti, he criticised what he called “pseudo-secularism” (a phrase popularised by hardline Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani) and invoked Gandhi to justify the encroachment of religion into the public sphere.

According to his simplistic analysis of Gandhian thought, religion cannot be separated from politics, whereas the Mahatma’s animating philosophy was that truly religious values should permeate all aspects of life, including the political sphere, which is an altogether different postulation. His write-up would, no doubt, have resonated with the purveyors of Hindutva.

To many, these intemperate statements by members of the Kerala clergy conjuring up the bogey of the faith being threatened by outside forces seems like an attempt to deflect the attention of believers from the legal troubles that have ensnared important functionaries of the church.

Church and state

The numerical and financial clout of the church in Kerala ensures 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 2019, the Cardinal of the Syro-Malabar Church, George Alencherry, was accused of masterminding a series of questionable land deals that have allegedly caused huge financial loss to the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese. One allegation is that he registered a house and six cents of land meant for the underprivileged in the name of his brother’s family. 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. Despite the allegations, he continues as the spiritual head of the Syro-Malabar Church.

Even more disgraceful is the criminal case against bishop Franco Mulakkal, who is accused of raping a nun multiple times between 2014-’16. He was arrested but is presently on bail. Even as the Kottayam court hears the case, the Church establishment has used a range of intimidatory tactics against the nuns and a priest who came out in support of the alleged victim.

Admittedly, a subterranean hostility has existed between Christians and Muslims in Kerala through the decades, which come to the surface most unexpectedly, even in the wake of international incidents that have nothing to do with Kerala or Malayalis.

The Easter Sunday bombings of three churches in Sri Lanka in 2019 and the cultural vandalism of the iconic Hagia Sophia museum that was converted into a mosque by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2020 provoked an outpouring of anti-Muslim communal venom, with Christian groups and Hindutva devotees joining hands to campaign for a boycott of restaurants and shops selling halal food.

The iconic Hagia Sophia museum was converted into a mosque by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2020. Photo credit: Arild Vågen/ Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Growing intolerance

More ominous and disturbing in the context of Christian-Muslim relations is the meeting of Narendra Modi with the top leadership of the Christian Church in January. Significantly, an important participant in the confabulations was the Cardinal enmeshed in the controversial land deals. After the meeting, he publicly stated: “Though the Church had some apprehension in the past against the Bharatiya Janata Party, it is all history.”

Every institution, including mighty religious establishments, must remember that to stay relevant, they must address and perhaps moderate archaic rigidities in practice in order to be relevant. For the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has provided us with a great lesson in realism and the need to understand human frailties instead of being judgemental and inflexible. For instance, he has opened the way for the acceptance of divorced people and LGTBQ within the church.

In contrast to this humanitarian approach, the Syro-Malabar Church of Kerala has been dogmatically intolerant on the issue of inter-faith marriages. This became abundantly clear in November 2020, when 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.

The church establishment ordered an inquiry into the event, obliging the hapless retired bishop to apologise for being present at the wedding of a family he knew well. The priests 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.

In another attempt to whip up anxiety about demographics and to suggest that the community is diminishing, the Family Apostolate of the Pala diocese in July announced financial assistance of Rs 1,500 per month for couples who were married after the year 2000 and have five or more children.

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.

As a Syro-Malabar Catholic, I have been embarrassed and disappointed by these happenings in the church over the past few years. I realise that, as with other religions, the problem is not with the song but with the off-key singers.

Mathew John is a retired civil servant.