‘Chrisanghis’: The rise of the Christian right in Kerala

Though the term Chrisanghi has been around for some time, it became popular in August 2021 after it featured in a speech delivered by a young priest named James Panavelil.
Casa workers
Casa workers
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The ancient rivalry between the two Abrahamic religions — Christianity and Islam — has often degenerated into bloody conflicts in other parts of the world. But in India, the relationship between Christians and Muslims has been shaped less by their differences and more by their shared experience of living as minorities among a Hindu majority. This common ground is beginning to erode in Kerala with the emergence of a virulently Islamophobic section of Catholics who are building deep ideological bonds with right-wing Hindutva over a shared hatred of Muslims. Dismissed as fringe elements by the Christian intelligentsia until a few years ago, they were disparagingly labelled ‘Chrisanghis’ for pursuing the agenda of the Sangh Parivar. These right-wing Christians have gone on to own the label and today many of them proudly self-identify as Chrisanghis.

One such self-defined Chrisanghi is 33-year-old George M who migrated to Canada two years ago but continues to watch political developments in Kerala with a hawk-eye. George is an active member of the Christian Association and Alliance for Social Action (Casa), a group in north Kerala defined by its contempt for Muslims. He is an active participant in district-level Casa WhatsApp groups and other groups like the Warriors of Cross. They tend to be confused with the other ‘CASA’ (Church’s Auxiliary for Social Action), a humanitarian arm of 24 Protestant and Orthodox churches, but their agenda is diametrically opposite.

The Casa and Warriors of Cross have one thing in common — their revisionist stands on Christianity and their unbridled hatred for Islam and Muslims. Like every other person in these groups, George also believes most of the hate speech and propaganda he hears, such as that the Muslim population is skyrocketing, or that Muslims are taking over the country. George states clearly that he doesn’t mind being called a ‘Chrisanghi’.

Though the term has been around for some time, it became popular in August 2021 after it featured in a speech delivered by a young priest named James Panavelil. James is an assistant vicar at St George Church in Ernakulam’s Varapuzha. He was criticising the controversy over the Malayalam film Eesho, directed by Nadirshah, who happens to be a Muslim. Many Christian fundamentalists, including priests, had questioned giving the film the Malayalam version of Jesus’s name.

“Be a human first, then you will be a saint. When the film was titled Eesho, Christians here lost their cool. There were many films in the past with similar names but this time they have started a war. In social media, we have a new name — ‘Chrisanghi’. We were not like this earlier. Now, we have more hatred in us than others. This is religiosity, we don’t need that. We need spirituality, which is to love each other,” the priest had said in a viral speech.

Following the speech, he was subjected to massive cyber bullying. Though James used the term to criticise fundamentalists, it ended up lending legitimacy to the word itself. Soon, many people started saying ‘Proud to be a Chrisanghi’ on social media profiles, comments, and shows.

Growth of Christian extremist groups in Kerala

Casa is a growing organisation with committees in every district. They were one of the first among the many Christian extremist groups that emerged in Kerala in recent times. Several other groups and YouTube channels with preachings that are capable of harming communal harmony have also gained popularity.

Groups like Casa have a ready roster of issues around which they mobilise Christians against Muslims. They run social media campaigns about narcotic jihad, love jihad, halal food, and the hijab. Never mind that there is no evidence to back these conspiracy theories. George regularly posts crime stories on his social media profiles in which Muslims are the accused.

Casa’s social media pages are filled with posts on love jihad, narcotic jihad, and the anti-halal campaign. They bombard their audiences with content about Christian persecution in Islamic countries but conveniently ignore the state of affairs in India, where attacks against Christians and their institutions by Hindutva groups have seen an alarming spike since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power. Even the 2021 attacks on Karnataka churches were not condemned by Casa or other such groups. It is common to find posts calling for an economic boycott of Muslims, an idea also advocated by a handful of mainstream politicians.

“We have WhatsApp groups, discussions of current situations, and some casual meetings in church. We keep a keen eye on all the girls in our church. Any attempts by them to get into any relationship with Muslim boys will be blocked,” a youth from Kasaragod, who is an active member of Casa, said.

“I know that Casa might be linked to the BJP’s Minority Morcha or some Sangh Parivar groups, I am not sure, but we share common interests with the BJP. We have a common enemy, we will not let India turn into an Islamic country,” George added.

Preventing interfaith marriages, particularly those where the groom is Muslim, is one of Casa’s top priorities. The recent death by suicide of college student Nanda Vinod (19), where the man accused of abetting the suicide – MK Abdul Shuhaib (20) – is a Muslim, was used by Casa and its satellite groups to run a massive hate campaign against Islam and Muslims. Whether it is the Coimbatore car blast or the Mangalore RSS worker’s murder, all are employed to run political campaigns against Muslims by Casa.

Most heated discussions organised by these new-age Christian right-wing groups take place on the Clubhouse app. It has several groups that hold discussions on Islam. Most of the discussions are framed to challenge the historic fact that both Muslims and Christians have a common prophetic tradition started by Ibrahim or Abraham. They do not believe that Moosa and Isa are Moses and Jesus. Many even claim that these similarities were spread by Islam to target Christianity.

Christheeya Viswasa Prathirodikal (Defenders of Christian Belief), Proud Catholics, Apologists Preach Islam, Warriors of Cross, and Christian Youths are some of the organistaions that hold discussions on such topics. Even priests, pastors, and nuns participate in these talks. Love jihad was the most popular topic until sometime ago, many citing certain interfaith marriages to prove that it exists. Historical issues between Islam and Christianity in Armenia to Hagia Sophia have been discussed in these groups. These discussions stress that Christianity should not have a fraternal relationship with Islam.

Besides the hatred and mistrust towards Islam, Kerala’s contemporary politics, in which the Hindu right is making deep inroads, has also paved the way for the growth of these groups. Though most of the Christian population has traditionally been supporters of the United Democratic Front (UDF) headed by the Congress, two factors have led to their estrangement.

One factor is that a section of the Catholic church has drifted towards the BJP and the second is the traditional rivalry between Christian groups and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a powerful party within the UDF formation. Among these, Christian right groups believe that UDF is ‘ruled’ by the IUML. According to them, IUML functions only for the Muslim community. The rift between Muslims and Christians had resulted in a split in the vote share too. PC George’s defeat in Poonjar in the 2021 Assembly elections has been attributed to the alienation of the Muslim population owing to his Islamophobic comments. The IUML’s vote share also decreased in some prominent Christian areas.

Syro-Malabar Christians, also known as Syrian Christians, are a traditionally wealthy, landed community who claim Hindu-Brahmin origins. They have also accumulated enormous social capital compared to the Latin Catholics. In an earlier article published in TNM, G Pramod Kumar explained the reasons that attract the BJP to the Syro-Malabar population. “They carry with them the same caste-based elitism that’s associated with Hindus. They are considered to be upper-caste Hindu converts,” he wrote.

Many leaders of the church have cited an inequality in the distribution of minority scholarships between Christians and Muslims. They blame the IUML and the political pressure it exerts as the major reason for this. A Kerala High Court order on May 29, 2021, quashed a state government order from 2015 providing scholarships in 80:20 ratio to Muslims and to Latin Christians and converted Christians, saying it was ‘legally unsustainable’. Kerala witnessed much tension between various groups leading up to the judgement.

Casa and its connections

Though some group members believe that Casa has links with the Sangh Parivar, the leadership has always denied this. Casa president Kevin Peter had participated in the Hindu Maha Sabha conference in April in Thiruvananthapuram. However, he denied any connections with the Sangh Parivar.

Are the Catholic churches in Kerala, especially the oriental rite of Syro-Malabar, backing the extremist group? Though none of the dioceses have openly extended support to the group yet, many of the leaders have been supporting Casa covertly.

“We have huge support from many priests. During the last Assembly elections (2021), we had gone to different parishes to campaign for BJP candidates. We were welcomed by the parishes,” a Casa member from Kasaragod said on the condition of anonymity. The fact that they do not openly endorse the BJP allows these groups to gain a wider audience among those Catholics who are wary of the Hindu right but also Islamohobic in their outlook.

On May 26, a video of prominent Catholic preacher Xavier Khan Vattayil extending support to Casa appeared on social media. He said that the organisation is in the hearts of many Catholics across Kerala and that the organisation is not alone.

The Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC) had extended support to the love jihad and narcotic jihad claims. But on September 12, Father Joshy Mayyattil, a representative of KCBC, posted in his Facebook page that Casa is a terrorist organisation within the Christian community. He condemned Xavier Khan’s post supporting Casa.

“These saffron flag-bearers who pray by making the sign of the cross make us think that the Syro-Malabar Church is moving towards saffronisation. These people persuaded Achan [Xavier Khan] to openly support a movement that had rooted itself in hatred and joined hands with the Hindutva forces,” Joshy said. The priest also lashed out at the YouTube channel Shekinah News for allegedly supporting Casa by spreading false news.

The priest also spoke about how Casa originated and alleged that it has close connections with the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). “Casa was seeded through an RSS network called Christian Helpline, but now BJP’s Minority Morcha is behind it. A considerable number from the Syro-Malabar Church is within their net. It is also true that the extremist Chaldeans and those caught up in their social media groups — Modi devotees — have started proudly calling themselves ‘Chrisanghis’. But there can be no doubt that the synod, bishops, priests, monks, and laity of the Syro-Malabar Church are committed to preserving Christian love, the unity of the Church, and the secularism of India,” he said.

Christian Helpline was instituted in 2017 by the Kerala BJP Minority Morcha with the intention of campaigning against love jihad. The helpline was initiated by Renjith Abraham Thomas, who is the former Malappuram district secretary of the Minority Morcha.

Church and Islamophobia

It is not just groups like Casa that are spreading Islamophobia. Many Catholic churches do this both directly and indirectly, with the endorsement of the higher clergy.

During the Sunday mass on September 4 in a Catholic church in Kasaragod, the parish priest was furious that the attendance in a meeting held for mothers was low. He said, “What are you waiting for, the evil has reached your homes. Your daughters are going on the wrong path. There are predators from terrorist groups waiting for your daughters. The girls of our community are easily falling for them. Mothers are responsible for their daughters. That is why you should participate in the class.”

This warning from the priest came only a few minutes after a circular from the Thalassery Archbishop Joseph Pamplani was read out. In the circular, the bishop had said that the eight-day Lent from September 1-8 is a remembrance of the incident where Christian women gathered inside a church seeking protection for their virginity from gentile kings. He went on to add that the Lent should be dedicated to protect Christian girls from religious terrorist groups.

In the last few years, the Catholic church in Kerala has never failed to find a reason to speak about love jihad and about how to prevent their women from marrying into the Muslim community. Various bishops have spoken about love jihad and alleged that Christian women are being lured by Muslim men. Last September, the Pala Bishop Joseph Kallarangat added the accusation narcotic jihad as well, which triggered a huge row, and barely avoided blowing up into communal violence. A huge rally, which had the potential of causing clashes, was conducted by Muslim and Christian groups in response to the bishop.

A parish priest under the Thalassery diocese said, “We had classes in the church under the leadership of KCBC and the Kerala Catholic Youth Movement (KCYM) for nuns and priests. Special classes will also be given to parents, separately and together. They cannot be careless and later grieve. We give them awareness that love jihad is not a bogey, that it exists in our society.” He added, “Mothers are responsible for what path their daughters choose.”

The different Syro-Malabar Catholic dioceses in the state receive frequent circulars from their respective bishops regarding this. In January 2020, a synod (a high profile meeting of bishops) of the Syro-Malabar Church was held, where it stated that love jihad is real and that Christian women are under the threat of being forced to undergo religious conversion after being allegedly trapped in fake relationships. A circular was sent by Cardinal George Alencherry based on the discussions in the synod over love jihad. However, some of the churches under the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese refused to read them. This may not be seen solely as an expression of dissent towards the church’s view on love jihad. The Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese is also in the midst of a huge row sparked by financial discrepancies and liturgical conflicts that have turned a large section of the priests against Alenchery.

Following this, a few other dioceses also issued circulars warning about Christian women ‘falling in the trap’. The Thamarassery diocese even published a handbook on love jihad, which claimed that more than 160 girls had fallen prey to it. The book was meant for class 11 and 12 catechism students.

Antony Tharekkadavil, a north Kerala priest, is popular for his talks that are telecast on different Christian YouTube channels. His statements, such as those referring to characters in the Quran as fictional, have provoked the spread of religious hatred. He argued that Christian women are the most easy target of Jihadis. The church and the organisations associated with it, such as the KCYM, have openly supported him and have given him a heroic status. He was one of the torchbearers of the anti-halal campaign that claimed that it is a sin for Catholics to consume halal food.

The church and love jihad

Many consider the developments in the church as a reflection of the Islamophobia present all over the world. J Prabhash, former pro-vice-chancellor and head of the department of Political Science in the University of Kerala, said that globally there is a tension between the two religious communities, which is being reflected here also.

"What we see in Kerala is a reflection of the global scenario,” he explained. Prabhash, however, added that in reality, there are many interfaith marriages between Christians and Muslims, Christians and Hindus, and Muslims and Hindus. Highlighting the inherent patriarchy of religious communities, he pointed out, “It is not that a particular religion targets girls from other religions, but these communities are worried only about their girls marrying men belonging to other religious backgrounds.”

Many church reformists have pointed out that the Catholics in Kerala are insecure about losing their members. “Even earlier too, Hindu-Christian marriages received more acceptance than Muslim-Christian ones. Hinduism was not considered a major threat then. But Islamophobia was always present in the church, as was the case with any other community,” Jaiby Joseph, social critic and popular YouTuber said. According to him, love jihad discussions have now become more explicit after 20 Keralites left the country and joined Islamic State (ISIS). Some among them were Christians who converted to Islam.

Jaiby also alleged that the church has close connections with the BJP. Even when it came to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the KCBC supported the BJP government. Father Varghese Vallikkatt, spokesperson and secretary of the KCBC, wrote an opinion piece in the RSS mouthpiece Janmabhoomi on January 7, 2020 supporting CAA. He stated, “No other party except the BJP has understood or taken a stand on how to tackle political Islam. None of the political parties in the country which focus on the minority vote bank will have the courage to do this.”

In January 2021, the heads of all three Catholic denominations (Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara, and Latin) met with PM Modi to reportedly discuss various issues, including the Kerala Catholic church’s stand on love jihad. The bishops also raised the issue of their discontent with the distribution of scholarships for minority students. A month before that, in December 2020, Modi had met with representatives of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church, both Syrian denominations although not Catholic, to broker peace in a decades-old property feud. The Supreme Court had ruled in favour of the former in July 2017.

The church’s sudden affinity with the BJP has been cited as the next reason for its explicit Islamophobia. Indulekha Joseph, a lawyer and member of the Kerala Catholic Church Reformation Movement (KCRM), said that the Catholic leaders who spew hatred are opportunists who don’t have any ideology of their own. “They go with the politics that are beneficial to them. The church has great wealth and it serves their need to go with Sangh Parivar interests as they can hide all their illegal wealth accumulations,” she alleged.

Edited by Maria Teresa Raju

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