Here's Why PM Modi's Effort To Mediate In The Malankara Orthodox Church Dispute In Kerala Is Crucial
The Orthodox faction wants the dispute to be settled within the framework of the relevant Supreme Court order.
The Jacobite faction says that disputes, especially related to faith, cannot be resolved through endless litigation and there should be other means to find solutions.
A long-standing dispute in Kerala between Jacobite and Orthodox factions of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church over the control of about 1,000 churches and properties between them has now drawn the intervention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Both factions have been at loggerheads, leading to law and order problems in the State, following a 2017 Supreme Court order asking the Kerala government to take over the Jacobite churches and hand them over to the Orthodox faction.
On Monday (28 December) and yesterday (29 December), the Prime Minister held discussions with both factions in New Delhi in an attempt to find a solution to issue prolonging for over four decades.
The meeting comes on the heels of initiatives undertaken by Union Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan and Mizoram Governor P S Sreedharan Pillai.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has welcomed the Prime Minister’s mediation efforts and ruled out any politics being involved in Modi’s intervention.
Both factions have, in their respective statements, termed their meeting with the Prime Minister cordial and said he gave an opportunity to explain their respective stands.
Modi has assured them that he would study the situation and come back to find a cordial solution.
The Orthodox faction of the Malankara Church has objected to the Jacobites seeking an out-of-the-court solution despite a Supreme Court ruling, while the Jacobites complained that they are being alienated from their own churches.
The Orthodox faction wants the dispute to be settled within the framework of the apex court order, but the Jacobites pointed to some grievous issues arising out of the ruling.
In particular, it has pointed out that its members are unable to even bury the bodies of their near and dear ones in cemeteries of the churches their forefathers had built after the Supreme Court ruling.
“These churches were built over centuries by our forefathers, using hard-earned money. Our (Jacobite) delegation has sought a piece of legislation, something like Worship Act, to regain the right to worship in churches that we built as we are asked to vacate them,” a spokesperson of the Jacobite faction, which is insisting on a referendum on who should control which church, told the media.
The Jacobite faction, in particular, is seeking the Prime Minister’s intervention to give them "religious freedom, freedom of worship and justice to the problems the Jacobite Syrian Church is undergoing".
It has termed Modi’s intervention as valuable, saying that disputes, especially related to faith, cannot be resolved through endless litigation and there should be other means to find solutions to the issues.
The Prime Minister’s involvement also comes on heels of the Kerala High Court giving an ultimatum to the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala to take over the St Thomas Church at Kothamangalam in Ernakulam district or face the deployment of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) to take over the religious premises.
The High Court gave 8 January as a deadline to the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM)-ruled government following the long-standing dispute between Jacobite and Orthodox factions of the Malankara Church.
The High Court has also refused the Jacobite faction plea for maintaining the status quo.
The Kerala government has been in talks with both the factions since September this year but without finding a meeting point.
The LDF government has drawn flak for not trying to implement the 2017 Supreme Court ruling ordering handing over Jacobite churches to the Orthodox faction.
The dispute between the factions cropped up due to a split in the Malankara Church in 1912 into the Jacobite and Orthodox groups. They reunified in 1959 but the unification lasted only until 1973.
Since then, both the factions have been disputing over the churches and properties of the Malankara Church. Besides the dispute over 1,000 churches, a few of them have remained closed for years now and some are in dilapidated condition.
The Supreme Court’s ruling came after the Orthodox Church petitioned it, demanding that all churches under the Malankara Church be governed as per the Church Constitution of 1934.
The validity of the 1934 Constitution of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church to govern the parishes under the church had already been upheld by the Supreme Court.
The Orthodox Church has been following this constitution all along.
Modi’s intervention is being viewed with interest in Kerala with some welcoming it and others terming it as a “political move”.
The intervention is being welcomed since there is a school of thought which feels that the Prime Minister could find a viable solution to the prolonged dispute.
It could also end the law and order problems arising out of the feud.
On the other hand, parties such as the Congress are critical of it, saying it is aimed at garnering the Christian votes for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Former Kerala Chief Minister and senior Congress leader Oommen Chandy belongs to the Orthodox faction of the Malankara Church.
In 2014, when Modi met the bishops of both factions of the church at Kochi before he became the prime minister, the Congress-led United Democratic Front was disappointed with it.
The meeting then was seen as a result of growing discontent with the UDF over its failure to take any steps to solve the dispute.
Kerala Chief Minister Vijayan’s statement welcoming the Prime Minister’s initiative should also be viewed as a snub to the Congress.
The UDF and Congress tend to rely on Christian votes, particularly the Orthodox Church, in the elections and Vijayan’s statement, probably, is an indication of the CPM seeing the BJP cutting into the votes of Christians, who make up nearly 20 per cent of the electorate.
The CPM garnered a considerable amount of Christian votes in the recent local body polls by including the Kerala Congress (Mani) faction, which commands a significant following among Christians, in the LDF.
If Modi succeeds in finding a solution to the issue, the BJP will certainly stand to gain in the Assembly elections due in less than four months.
It could be the crucial breakthrough the party has been looking forward to all these years.
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