The Jacobite and Orthodox factions of the Kerala Malankara Church cannot see eye to eye and have been fighting for centuries over power and property. But one of those rare things that the two factions agree upon is that the Draft Kerala Church (Properties and Institutions) Bill 2019 needs to be junked. Most church denominations in Kerala have come together to dub the draft a devious plan by the Kerala government to takeover administration of churches, and eventually bring them under an administrative system like the Devaswom Board.
The draft notification of the bill, mooted by the Kerala Law Reforms Commission headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice KT Thomas, seeks to ensure fair and transparent administration of the properties and funds of the churches in Kerala, and end maladministration by subjecting churches to a process of accounting.
Under immense pressure from all denominations of the church, the Pinarayi Vijayan government has put the proposed bill on hold, at least until the Lok Sabha elections are over.
What the draft bill says
The draft bill defines "Christians" as all persons who believe in the Bible and accept Jesus Christ as the only begotten son of God and baptised according to the tenets of the denominations concerned under the draft.
Every denomination is entitled to hold properties which includes the funds collected through membership subscriptions, offertories, donations and any other money or valuable contributions from worshippers and non worshippers.
Each denomination shall make regulations for the governance of the denomination, including the rules applicable to the governance of the parishes.
Every denomination shall keep accounts pertaining to all the properties and funds of the denomination including the expenditure from time to time.
Accounts of every denomination shall be subjected to annual audit by a qualified Chartered Accountant or a team of accountants selected by the denomination. The audit report will be presented at the annual meeting or in any meeting convened for that purpose.
Each parish is entitled to own buildings and properties (give them on rent too) and if necessary to take such places on lease or licence arrangement. Parishes have to maintain accounts that will be subjected to audit.
The government shall constitute a Church Tribunal to look into disputes relating to administration or funds. The decision of this Tribunal is final. The Tribunal can either be a single member (only a current or retired District Judge) or a three member body.
Opposition to the draft bill
The Law Commission had called for a sitting at Kottayam on March 7 and 8 and had invited suggestions to take this draft forward. This meeting, however, has been indefinitely postponed following vehement opposition from the Kerala Catholic Bishop Council (KCBC) and the Joint Christian Council, that have warned the government that they will face severe consequences if they allow the bill to be passed. A joint council meeting was held in Changanacherry on Thursday, a meeting the church leaders from most denominations attended.
Kerala Catholic Youth Movement (KCYM), a church-run organisation under the Syro Malabar Church, has announced protests in 32 dioceses. KCYM state General Secretary Bijo P Babu told TNM, â€śWe will send over five lakh emails to the official email ID of the Kerala Law Reforms Commission against draft bill. We suspect the government plans to attach properties of the Church."
Kerala Catholic Bishop's Council has issued a circular, signed by its chairman, Archbishop M Soosa Pakiam, pointing out that the bill was unnecessary. "We suspect that the bill aims to transfer the governing of the church properties and institutions from church authorities to the government. The draft bill states that presently there is no law to handle the property of the Church, and that is wrong. A better system is already in place and the Church property is handled sticking to the civil laws of the country and the laws of the Church," read the KCBC circular. The circular was read out on Sunday in all churches in the state during mass.
The side that believes the draft bill is weak
While the KCBC and other church organisations believe that the draft bill is all things evil, many groups of church whistleblowers and reformists allege that this draft is watered down, and that the Law Reforms Commission is actually going soft on the churches.
The Kerala Church Act Action Council, a reformist body, has alleged that this new draft bill is an attempt to sabotage Justice VR Krishna Iyerâ€™s draft bill of 2009, called the Kerala Christian Church Properties and Institutions Trust bill 2009. (This draft bill never made it to the Assembly)
The councilâ€™s chairman George Joseph told TNM, â€śWe welcome the governmentâ€™s decision to monitor the financial dealings of the churches in the state. But we suspect that the new draft bill aims to sabotage the 2009 draft bill."
Their main argument is that the new draft gives church denominations the freedom to frame rules and regulations regarding the governance of church properties, while the old draft stood for governance through democracy.
George Joseph further said, "We will submit our recommendations and complaints soon. We want an independent body to monitor the financial dealings of the churches to avoid spats.â€ť
Advocate Indulekha Joseph, a whistleblower, has written in detail to the Law Reforms Commission and said that all account statements and documents pertaining to monetary transactions regarding church properties should be brought under the ambit of Right to Information Act. She has pointed out that counting only funds, assets and investments of denominations is not enough, and that properties of congregations, convents, seminaries and such other institutions of priests and nuns should also be included. Indulekha said that omitting these institutions from the ambit of law would allow church authorities to amass wealth in the name of these institutions.
Facing opposition from all sides, the Kerala government has strategically decided to put off any decisions on this draft bill, and is buying time â€“ at least until the General Elections are over. But while nobody seems happy with this version, it will be interesting to see whether the state government will manage to pass a law to regulate church properties â€“ and whether the various denominations will come to some sort of compromise regarding their own financial scrutiny.