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Bill To Govern Church Properties Irks Christians In Indian Southern State

ICC Note

“If the government wants to help Christians, it must help restore Christian properties which have been alienated. It can also bring about a law banning the sale of Christian property,”

By James Varghese

Friday, December 14, 2007India (ANS) — Christian groups in Andhra Pradesh are opposing legislation proposed to protect Church properties in the state.

This news revealed by the website

One provision in the “Christian Properties Protection Bill” allows the state government to sack “drunken” priests and bishops who head Christian organizations.

The legislation was made public on Dec. 4. It aims to bring Church properties under government control, as is already the case with Hindu temples and Muslim mosques.

Its genesis goes back to March 2005, when some legislators raised the issue of the sale of Protestant Church land in Andhra’s Kurnool district, about 1,700 kilometers south of New Delhi. This led to debate in the state legislative assembly on the way Church properties are managed. Two months later, the government set up a committee of assembly members to study the matter.

The committee held public meetings in districts where irregularities were reported. After 15 sittings it produced an interim report on May 17, 2006. After another 14 sittings, the committee produced its final report on July 27, 2007.

Christine Lazares, a legislator and committee member, told UCA News that the bill recommends setting up a property board to safeguard Church properties. She said Church land worth more than 20 billion rupees (US$506 million) was “sold for peanuts” in Andhra Pradesh in the past two decades.

While Church leaders admit irregularities in Church land deals, they disapprove of a government board controlling Church properties.

“Unlike temples and mosques, which have been built with donations from philanthropic persons and government, Church properties are private,” says Father Anthoniraj Thumma, executive secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Federation of Churches.

Church properties, Father Thumma told UCA News on Dec. 12, are purchased by various societies and Christian institutions. These bodies must follow existing regulations that “ensure properties are not sold off in an inappropriate manner,” added the priest of Hyderabad Catholic archdiocese, based in the state capital of the same name.

Father Thumma also faults a clause in the bill that allows the government to remove the head of a Christian organization addicted to liquor or substance abuse.

“How can the government interfere in such matters? We are not servants of the state,” he said. He acknowledged, however, that the Church has the right to send an addicted priest to a treatment facility.

G. Bal Reddy, a Catholic lay leader, also sees the bill as government interference. He further objects to applying “the same set of rules” to all Christian denominations. According to him, canon law already has provisions regulating the sale of Catholic Church properties.

Reddy has attended workshops organized by the government in districts to elicit Christian views on the bill. He spoke to UCA News on Dec. 12 after such a workshop in Nizamabad district.

G. Alfred, a Baptist and chairperson of an inter-church front, favored the bill initially, but later changed his views. He says the “poorly drafted bill” has copied certain provisions from the laws governing temples and mosques.

“It just does not suit Christian institutions. It must be dropped immediately,” Alfred insisted. He also warned that if Andhra Pradesh passes the bill, other states ruled by parties “inimical” to Christians would enact tougher laws to control Church properties.

“If the government wants to help Christians, it must help restore Christian properties which have been alienated. It can also bring about a law banning the sale of Christian property,” he suggested.

Reverend B.C. Devavaram of the Church of South India pointed out other potential dangers in the bill. Writing to fellow presbyters on Dec. 8, the Protestant pastor warned that heads of Churches would have to abide by the directions of the Christian board, whose decisions or orders cannot be questioned in court.

The board would include 15 representatives of various Churches. This would equate a Church with more than 3 million people to a neo-Christian sect with a few members, Reverend Devavaram warned.

Lazares says such opposition does not bother her. “Everyone is interpreting the bill as it suits them,” she said. When “even Christian graveyards have not been spared from encroachment,” the bill is “the need of the hour,” she asserted.

The legislator maintains the Church representatives on the board will ensure it indulges in no irregularity