The Andhra Pradesh state governments decision to grant monthly cash benefits to Hindu, Islamic and Christian priests had caused much political storm in the state. After opposition from the BJP, a magazine run by the Catholic Church has written an open letter to the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister urging him to rise above religion- based politics and withdraw the cash benefits being extended to all religious heads.
It was a poll promise of the YSRCP to grant Rs Rs 10,000 to Rs 35,000 for maintenance of temples and Rs 15,000 as an honorarium to imams and muezzins and Rs 5000 for Christian priests. The government recently announced the honorariums to pastors and increased the renumeration for Hindu priests by 25%, from the amount cited in an order in March 2019 by the previous TDP government. The open letter written by AJ Philip, a journalist and columnist, in India Currents’, a magazine run under the patronage of the Capuchin of Krist Jyoti province of North India, calls for the scrapping of these sops.
In his letter, Philip points out that village-level priests are often economically supported by the community and the church does not require state support. "It is not the government’s job to pay them an allowance of Rs 5000. It is the responsibility of the church and its members to support them," writes Philip who is also insisting the state scrap its subsidies on religious pilgrimages. He reasons that the role of the state in religion is limited to developing religious places in order to make them easier travel destinations, he cites Kerala as an example.
"The government has been paying some such remuneration to Hindu priests which were increased by 20 per cent. If that indeed is the case, let me mention that two wrongs do not make one right," wrote Philip who added that all priests getting such an allowance from the government is also wrong.
He, however, reasoned that "if the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam Board or the Kerala Devaswam Board pays a pension to its retired priests, it cannot be questioned because it is their responsibility to do so."
The columnist reiterated that the church does not need any official patronage. "The Sangh Parivar has always been spreading the falsehood that the church has been growing because of the influx of foreign money. In other words, they see every neo-convert as a recipient of foreign money," wrote Philip who claimed that the retired priests at his Church receive a pension of Rs 7,000 per month from the church. "They are also entitled to some medical benefits. Please note that the money does not come from government coffers," he added.
The senior journalist pointed out that in the case of Islam there is no concept of priesthood. "Anyone who is senior and knows how to lead in prayer can do so. Leading the congregation in prayer does not make him a priest." Philip insists that pensions could be given out based on economic conditions.
Philip also criticised the state governments move to extend support for pilgrimages, earlier the previous TDP government had extended state subsidy for Jerusalem pilgrimage. Philip points out that such trips are not mandatory for a Christian and that under Islam the poor are exempted for performing the mandatory haj pilgrimage. "It's against the principles of secularism which enjoins upon the governments not to promote any particular religion but allow every faithful to practice his or her faith," writes the columnist.
Philip asks Jagan not be bothered about the criticism of the BJP in the state as they are exploiting religion for political purposes.