Several Christian organisations in Kerala, cutting across denominations, are protesting against a draft Bill that aims to bring transparency in the administration of the Church.

The protests began after the Law Reforms Commission of Kerala, an autonomous body constituted by the state government, published the draft of the Kerala Church (Properties and Institutions) Bill, 2019, on its website on February 27 and urged stakeholders to submit suggestions to be incorporated in the draft.

Critics of the Bill alleged that it was a ploy by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front government to control the Church administration ahead of the general elections, and threatened to mobilise members of the community against it. Christians form 18.3% of the state’s population.

Leading the agitation against the Bill is the powerful Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Conference, which raised questions about the Commission’s intentions. “Neither the Catholic Church nor any recognised Church organisations had demanded such a Bill,” it said last Friday.

The Inter-Church Council, a platform for all Christian churches in the state, warned the state government of dire consequences if the legislation went ahead.

The Kerala Catholic Youth Movement, a church-run organisation under the Syro-Malabar Church, announced protests against the Bill in 32 dioceses, reported The News Minute.

With the Lok Sabha elections round the corner, the government is in a tough spot. In recent months, it has also drawn vociferous criticism from Hindu religious organisations for attempting to implement the Supreme Court order in September to allow women of all ages entry into the Sabarimala temple.

Fearing that it will alienate the Christian community, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan declared on Saturday that his government was not planning to implement the proposed Bill. “Rumours are being spread to alienate Christians from from the Left Democratic Front,” he said at a pre-election campaign rally in Thrissur.

How the Bill came about

Retired Supreme Court judge Justice KT Thomas, who heads the five-member Law Reforms Commission of Kerala, said the Commission decided to draft the Bill on its own after it realised that a law was needed to govern the Church’s temporal interests: its properties and funds. “The state government is not party to our decision,” Thomas told on Wednesday.

The decision came after a corruption scandal emerged last year in which Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church based in Kerala, was accused of corruption for approving the sale of Church land in the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese for a price that was below market value, said Thomas.

Thomas said the Bill aims to bring transparency in the administration of Church assets and funds and other resources. “The Bill stresses on the formation of committees to audit the assets and funds utilisation within the Church to curb maladministration and corruption,” he said.

According to the draft Bill, each parish must maintain accounts, which should be audited by Chartered Accountants appointed by the parish. The audited report should be presented before the general body for approval.

The Bill also urged the government to constitute a Church tribunal, presided over by a person who holds or has held the office of a District Judge, to redress escalated complaints. “Complainants can approach the tribunal if the dispute cannot be settled at the parish level,” Thomas said.

What next?

Vijayan’s announcement distancing his government from the Bill has disappointed those Christians who have been demanding transparency in the administration of their churches. Among them was Father Augustine Vattoly, who led the agitation against senior Catholic priests accused of being involved in the suspect land deal last year. He said that the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) had used the draft Bill as a device to bargain with the Church.

“I believe that the chief minister’s announcement [that his government will not pursue the Bill] came after getting assurances of political support from the corruption-tainted Church,” Vattoly said. “The Bill is a good tool to curb corruption in the Church. Only stern actions by the government can bring in change.”

Leaders of reformist Christian organisations said the Bill is now likely to meet the same fate as the one drafted in 2009 by the same Commission, which was headed by eminent jurist Justice VR Krishna Iyer.

That draft, titled “The Kerala Christian Church Properties and Institutions Trust Bill”, was aimed to promote democratic, efficient and just administration of the temporal affairs of the Church.

It had recommended that Christian charitable trusts and committees be constituted to manage the Church’s finances and properties. It had recommended that elections to these committees be conducted at different levels of the Church’s administrative units –the parish, diocese and state levels.

The Left Democratic Front government, which was in power in 2009, did not introduce the draft Bill in the Assembly.

“The 2009 bill was stronger as it interfered in the spiritual activities of the Church,” said Justice KT Thomas. “Compared to that the 2019 Bill is mild in nature as we focused only on transparency in administration.”

He added that the Commission needed a few more sittings to finalise the draft Bill. “The last date to submit suggestions ended on Wednesday,” he said. “We will incorporate suggestions, if needed, before forwarding it to the government. It is up to the government to take further action.”

Thomas said that a large number of people had submitted their suggestions in support of the draft Bill. “It is a good sign,” he said.

The Bill’s votaries include the church management committee of St John the Baptist Church at Kumarakam in Kottayam district. Established in 1853, it is one of the prominent parishes of the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Church.

The Church committee urged the Commission in a letter last week to incorporate clauses from the 2009 Bill in the current draft Bill before presenting it to the government. “It is high time we get a law to curb the corruption in the church,” said PV Abraham, trustee of the Church committee. “The Bill has the support of laity and priests who oppose corruption.”