The Syro Malabar Church, one of the prominent religious forces in Kerala, has been in a fix recently after allegations of financial irregularities in land dealings against some of the top officials of the church.
A group of priests under the Archdiocese has said they will write to the Pope complaining about the irregularities in the buying and selling of land by the church.
“We will write to the Pope soon while a group of devotees are planning to move the court. For priests moving the court against a Bishop is not fair, and we have to examine if it is against the Canon Law. The Pope had publicly declared two big sins – paedophilia and financial irregularities,” Father Augustine Vattoli, a priest under the Archdiocese and an active figure in social issues, told TNM.
The allegations raised by the Save Archdiocese Campaign, a forum in which most of diocese priests are members, is that the church had incurred huge losses by selling the land owned by it for lower prices. Ironically, the sale of the land was to get over the debt the church had incurred after buying land at Mattur in Ernakulam to build a medical college under its ownership.
Cardinal Mar George Alencherry, the head of the church and the most respected among devotees, has also been accused by activists of the forum of being silent about the dealings and hence supporting it.
“The 3.3 acres of land in five plots near Thrikkakara, Vazhakkala, and Kakkanad in Kochi were sold at a price much lesser than that of the market price. The land was divided into 36 plots before selling, like real estate dealers do. It’s against Canon Law for the church to act like a business firm. Is the church a real estate dealer? Also, the decision was taken without consulting anyone. When a property is not owned by an individual, a feasibility study should be done before the sale and also bids should be invited. But no such procedures have been followed,” a member of the Save Archdiocese Forum told TNM.
He added that by selling the land at a lower price than the market value the church had also caused a loss to the government as the income that would go to the exchequer as tax from the deal would also be less.
“We don’t say that the church or the Arch Bishop has made financial gain out of the deal. But the whole affair didn’t have transparency. How can one assume that the Arch Bishop, who has multiple master degrees and decades of experience, and other top heads of the church hadn’t assessed the situation before selling the land? The land deals were entrusted to a real estate dealer in Pala. Strangely, while the amount from the sale was not credited to the account of the Archdiocese, the TDS payment of the deal is recorded in it. This means the transaction could happened without receiving the full amount from the buyers,” a member of the forum added.
“As per the real market value, if the land was sold with prior advertisements, Rs 80 crore could have resulted from the sale. The land deal, as per instructions from the Arch Bishop, was entrusted with Saju Varghese Kunnel, a real estate dealer based in Pala. But the land was sold at Rs 9,05,000 per cent. Even in that case, Rs 27 crore should have resulted from the sale, but when the documents of the deals were examined, the transactions showed only Rs 13 crore. It was the Bishop who introduced Saju to Archdiocese procurator Father Joshy Puthuva,” Father Vattoli said.
It all began with the buying of 23.22 acres of land in Mattur for building a medical college in April 2017. The land was bought by taking a loan of Rs 58 crore from South Indian Bank.
“The land was bought for Rs 2.39 lakh per cent. Earlier, at the time of the former Arch Bishop, the land was offered at Rs 2 lakh. The land deal was kept a secret and everyone came to know about it when it was spread through a WhatsApp group. We then accessed the documents of the deal,” Father Vattoli said.
“Rs 300 crore is needed to construct the medical college, which in turn means collecting huge fees from the students. Who will pass out from the medical college – only those who have lakhs and those without any social commitment, which is against the ethics of the church. Hence the decision to start the medical college was dropped at the time of former Arch Bishop Mar Varkey Vithayathil. Why did the present administration act against the decision?” a member of the Forum asked.
The church is paying Rs 6 crore as annual interest for the bank loan taken to buy the land at Mattur and the land it owned was sold to repay the amount.
“At first, we asked the Arch Bishop about the land deal he had said that no such land was bought. But when we produced the documents, he confirmed,” the member claimed.
Those who oppose non-transparent land deals argue that it was decades-old property that some people unilaterally sold and the loss is for all those who owe affiliation to the church.
It’s reported that the synod meeting of the church will be held on Monday at the headquarters in Kochi to discuss the situation.