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Indian churches stand embattled amid vindictive state policies

| Updated: September 17, 2021 12:21 pm

Even the boat of Galilee on a robust Sea would not have been thrown as brutally as the Church in India ends up shaken today, attempting to arrange its direction between cutthroat political space with Muslims and Hindus in far off Kerala, uncontrolled oppression by non-state entertainers in the north and focal states, its assets choked by progressively malevolent state strategies, and its organizations, its social face for quite a long time, gazing at a dubious future in numerous districts. 

This is maybe a snapshot of the best test for it since Independence, a chance to moderate and combine its solidarity and reach out to friends in civil society for help. All things said and done, church leaders end up quickly losing allies, even as they make new foes, and enlarge the numerous inside breaks of authoritative opinion, principle, racialism, and position. The battle of ladies against patriarchal strict religious leadership gives the emergency simply that basic energy to pitch it to the global stage for the general public’s viewing pleasure. 

Collateral damage
The collateral damage is the secular image of Kerala, and the history of communal peace, if not genuine amity, that has marked relationships between Christians and their larger Muslim and Hindu neighbours. And in a development not foreseen by the leaders, it may well impact relations with the Islamic countries of the Gulf, where large numbers of Malayalis of all faiths work and send home the precious remittances that underpin the home state’s economy.

Hindus, at 54.7% of the 3.34 crore population, or 1.82 crores in the 2011 Census, remain the dominant community in Kerala, followed by Muslims with 26.5% (about 88 lakh) and Christians at 18.3% (61 lakh). Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains are below 5,000 each, and 95,773 people have not stated their religion. The 2021 decadal national census has been delayed due to the lockdowns imposed to control COVID-19, but experts say the population may be close to 3.58 Crore at a growth rate of about 7.2%. Christians fear that their numbers, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the state’s population, may come down drastically, with family sizes shrinking from the post-Independence figures of six or more children per family to three or less now.

Islamophobia has not been mentioned freely in public, yet the standing ridden Christian group observes itself to be quieter with their Hindu neighbours than with Muslims, who, before the discovery of oil in West Asia and the work blast, were monetarily less wealthy. They are more politically dynamic now, with a presence in the Left Democratic Front (LDF) drove by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M), as likewise in the Congress alliance. Christians were until recently seen as tied to the apron strings of the Congress. There is a lot of truth in this. Throughout the years, a forbidden relationship has solidified between political pioneers who rely upon the support of the chain of importance for votes, and pioneers who are then interlocutors to defend the material and political interests of the Church.

A Keg of Powder With a Very Short Fuse
The Marxists lost the plot way back in 1958 in their first elected government led by Comrade EMS Namboodiripad, who angered vested interests by his move against Church-owned educational institutions. The outrage eventually led to his dismissal by the Jawahar Lal Nehru government in New Delhi.

This is imprinted in the community’s racial memory.

Recent fears are of state funds by way of scholarships and development grants going largely to the Muslims at the expense of the Christian community.
There is some truth in this, as the Marxist government deviated from national norms, saying more funds should go to Muslims, who were more underdeveloped. The retraction came after the damage had been done.

Taken together, it was a keg of powder, and with a very short fuse.

It was lit by Pala Bishop Mar Joseph Kallarangatt, who, in an address, said jihadists were trying to sow the seeds of communalism and intolerance in Kerala and forcibly converting people belonging to other religions. Adding to the bogey of ‘Love Jihad’ — a term invented in Kerala more than a decade ago — Kallarangatt implied that Muslim youth were now snaring Christian youth and making them drug addicts.

Not a Monolith
Reactions were immediate, an early one coming from the Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Women’s groups, Christian priests and human rights activists followed. Muslim groups staged protests, one of them a march to the bishop’s residence.

Stunned by the protests, the Bishop’s staff sought to make amends, saying the remark had been taken out of context as the religious head was but cautioning against the drug menace ravaging the state. The Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference repeated this explanation, in the hope that the furore would die down.

But the Kerala church, as, in fact, the Indian Christian community, is not a monolith. It reflects scores of denominations and sects, and even cults as some would say, in the country. To begin with, the Catholic group itself is three independent entities, united in their allegiance and affiliation to the Pope while maintaining their separate cultural and liturgical identities as the Syro Malabar Catholics, the Syro Malankara Catholics, and the Latin Catholics.

Internal Friction 
The independent status of the Syrian churches is of recent times, and it comes after decades of acrid and bitter confrontations, wars of words, and appeals to the Pope. The two Rites now have dioceses also in Australia, North America, and the European-West Asian region, making them the richest church group in India, if not in Asia.

Pala, with neighbouring districts, has possibly the most compact population of the Syro Malabar Catholic Rite. This has also made them an important instrument in political calculations in the State. It also makes them the target of suspicion, scorn, and jealousy.

The Metropolitan of the Mar Thoma Church expressed his disapproval of the Plan Bishop’s statement, deriding attempts to aggravate communal divides in Kerala. Metropolitan Yulios Geevarghese of the Malankara Orthodox Church followed suit, demanding a public apology from Kallarangatt.

And then is the gathering revulsion and opposition from within. The most polite say the Bishop spoke out of turn even if drugs and radicalisation were a national issue. He used a dog whistle, which accentuated the islamophobia that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sangh are assiduously fanning as they seek a foothold in this politically important state.

The women groups, including those of the Nuns who have been waging a high-publicity guerrilla war on sexual abuse in the church, have scored a point, charging the church with coining ‘Love Jihad’ to control women’s agency, especially their sexuality, while remaining blind to evils of dowry and domestic violence.

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