The Syro Malabar church is lapping up the propaganda in The Kerala Story

‘The Kerala Story’ screening was condemned by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Opposition leader VD Satheesan, both of whom characterised the incident as a ploy by the Sangh Parivar and cautioned against its influence on the public.
Still from the film
Still from the film
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The annual Viswasotwasam organised by the Syro Malabar Church’s Idukki diocese had a session that stood out from the rest — the screening of the propaganda film The Kerala Story.

Viswasotwasam, during which the film was screened, is a summer workshop focussing on Catholic values held in all parishes under the diocese for catechism students aged 6 to 18. Following the backlash faced by the Idukki diocese, the Kerala Catholic Youth Movement (KCYM) of Thamarassery diocese announced that they too would screen the film. However, the diocese administration has distanced itself from the announcement.

The screening by the Idukki diocese had been condemned by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Opposition leader VD Satheesan. Both political leaders called the incident a ploy by the Sangh Parivar and cautioned against its influence on the public.

“They are trying to achieve their goals by turning one section of people against another. That is the agenda of the Sangh Parivar. It is important not to fall into that trap. Where has such a thing happened in Kerala? A big lie has been presented [through the film]. These are figments of their imagination employed to defame our state,” Pinarayi told reporters.

The Kerala Story is a propaganda film that claims to be based on the story of a group of Keralites who left the state a few years ago to join the Islamic State. It is however an exaggerated version with many falsehoods.

The screening was criticised not just by politicians. The head of the Niranam Diocese of Malankara Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church, Geevarghese Mar Coorilos said that “churches should propagate "love stories", not "hate stories".

He added, “The government and police have stated that ‘love jihad’ is a baseless claim. This is part of a propaganda targeting a particular community based on the politics of hatred and suspicion. A diocese screening a movie based on such lies and fake news for children in the name of awareness, is outrageous and unfortunate. I hope they will reconsider it.”

The timing of the screening, just two weeks before the state goes to polls, has led to sharp criticism of the Syro Malabar church.

Many have pointed out that the church has fallen for the agenda of a hateful, conservative group called the Christian Association and Alliance for Social Action (CASA). It has been selling the bogey of ‘love jihad’ in the state for quite a while, including through special classes organised across the state for Christian youth. The official church leadership neither supports nor denounces CASA.

The Syro Malabar church, however, maintains that their intentions are not political. Speaking to TNM, the spokesperson of the Syro Malabar Church in Kerala, Fr Antony Vadakkekara said the movie was screened out of ‘pure intentions’, and not for political reasons.

“The workshop [in Idukki churches] was centred around the theme of 'love'. They created a booklet to educate children about avoiding pitfalls in relationships. One of their activities was to watch the movie and write a review to raise awareness about the dangers of 'love traps'. This occurred on April 4, so why didn't it become an issue for the next three days? In Idukki, there were local reports on similar [‘love trap’] cases that served as the basis for educating children,” he claimed.

Fr Antony also suggested there was nothing wrong with the movie. “Isn't this movie certified by the censor board? Hasn't it been released in theatres in our country since May 2023? Hasn't it been released on an OTT platform? Wasn't it also screened by Doordarshan on April 5? The controversy here is political. The church does not intend any communal polarisation,” he added.

Some critics said that the Church screened the movie at a time when the elections are nearing with political intentions. It is true that the Church believes in the prevalence of the ‘love jihad' bogey and is indeed insecure about it.

Syro Malabar church and ‘love jihad’

Earlier in March 2024, when TNM visited Pala diocese in Kottayam district, Father Joseph Thadathil, the spokesperson of the diocese, mentioned that they maintain a register of news reports where Christian girls are lured and trapped in the name of love. When asked why the church strongly believes in 'love jihad', he responded, "Don't you read newspapers? There are frequent stories like these in the newspapers, and we have maintained a file for our reference."

Another priest from Thalassery diocese told TNM, "There are several cases where women are lured, converted, and trapped. We are not against love marriages, but these cases [of Muslim men marrying Christian or Hindu women] involve traps," he claimed.

When told that both the Kerala High Court and the state government have denied the claims of ‘love jihad’, he responded, "In documents, everything will appear legal. But how can someone prove that a girl is converted in the name of love and does not end up in a situation where she becomes a second or third wife? Politicians will deny it because they need vote banks," he alleged.

Many priests whom TNM spoke to confirmed that the 'love jihad' issue gained currency after 2014. The fear escalated in 2016 when 21 people from Kerala attempted to join the Islamic State.

Since 2019, there have been classes in Syro Malabar churches “raising awareness” about 'love jihad', often citing the example of the 2016 incident. These classes included sessions for mothers on “how to protect their daughters” and for teenagers on “how to avoid ‘love traps’”. People have shared testimonies of PowerPoint presentations held in various churches, illustrating how women were converted and ended up joining the Islamic State.

A priest, who requested anonymity, said that the clergy and the people of the church have become fearful, and this fear has been capitalised by the BJP.

“This happened as part of a deliberate plan — the BJP manipulated a few church leaders, and this hatred spread easily within the clergy. From the clergy, it spread to the believers. Making the church feel insecure about their faith being attacked was their initial step, and many churches, including bishops, fell into that trap,” he said.

“Some church leaders may also have other political intentions, but what primarily occurred is that the BJP succeeded in making them feel insecure and creating a rift between Christians and Muslims. They know they will never get Muslim votes with their Islamophobic ideologies, so the next section of the minority that can help them win here is Christians. They meticulously planned this rift and communal tension and executed it well," alleged the priest.

He also lamented that there is no point in political leaders warning churches against this agenda of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, because they have already fallen for it. 

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