While Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan slammed the Idukki District Collectorate for demolishing a massive cross at Papathishola in Munnar, the reaction from Christian groups has been oddly muted.
The 30-foot metal cross, erected on government land, was removed as part of an anti-encroachment drive led by District Collector GR Gokul on Thursday. Besides the cross, some thatched huts and a prayer hall, all set up on a 30-acre piece of property by a group called the ‘Spirit in Jesus’, were pulled down.
The Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council certainly expressed its unhappiness about the removal of the cross from the land. However, the Council was also quick to insist that it was not against the anti-encroachment drive. The sentiment was also echoed by Thamarassery Diocese. The Christian Dioceses’ responses have been far softer than in the many other cases where “religious sentiments are hurt”.
This muted response, many believe, has to do with the Catholic Church’s own position towards the ‘Spirit in Jesus’, a Thrissur-based sect reportedly founded and headed by a man named Tom Skaria. In 2016, the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council had issued a directive banning the activities of ‘Spirit in Jesus’, stating that the charismatic group was “functioning against the Bible and the Christian faith”.
The Catholic Church had also taken a stand that there should be introspection into why people are joining such groups. The reason prominent church groups in the state disapproved of ‘Spirit in Jesus’ is that it encourages practices of worship that the Catholic Church is decidedly against. Among its many practices, the group is reportedly known for calling down the souls of dead ancestors to free them of their sins.
It comes as no surprise, then, that representatives of mainstream churches little reacted to the demolition or the filing of cases against Tom Skaria. Indeed, some like Geevarghese Mar Coorilos, Metropolitan of the Niranon diocese of the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church openly backed the eviction, and argued against using religious symbols to cover up encroachments. Stating in a Facebook post that the Bible and the Cross had been used in the past to colonise land, he wrote, “The cross in Munnar was the most recent symbol of invasion, and Jesus Christ must be the happiest person to know that the cross was removed.”
Liberal groups within the Church establishment have also been opposed to the activities of Spirit in Jesus. The Kerala Church Reformation Movement, a liberal unit of the Joint Christian Council that has often questioned the functioning of the mainstream church, has also criticised the Thrissur sect for its practices.
George Joseph, the president of the Kerala Church Reformation, said of the group, “The functioning of the Spirit in Jesus sect has been protested against by bishops and nuns. Their practices, like calling of souls to release them from sins, can’t be accepted by any civilised Christian. This might have been done to offer something new to attract people into their faith. Churches had even issued a circular against them to caution believers. Spirit in Jesus believes in Jehovah, not in Jesus or Mother Mary.”
Expressing his support for the eviction drive, George said that the use of the cross as a shield for encroachment can’t be accepted in the name of faith. “The group have been attracting a lot people into their path. The encroachment was huge. Erecting a cross for an illegal activity can’t be accepted by the general public, though they might call it faith. Even if it is faith, the law and order of the country is applicable to them as well,” George told TNM.
George added that while they were not against different kinds of faith, they could not countenance faith being used to mask illegalities. “As per our knowledge the group’s origin is in Kerala, and they have been receiving foreign aid. We are not against people following any kind of belief, but using it as a shield for anti-social activities should be questioned,” he said.