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State decides not to control Church properties

04/13/09 JABALPUR, India (UCAN) — Church leaders in Madhya Pradesh state are pleased it has rejected a proposal to bring Church properties under state control.

“I welcome the government decision,” Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal commented on April 7, shortly after local media reported the government decision.

The State Minority Commission early this year recommended legislation to set up a board to manage Church properties, similar to the Waqf (foundation) Board for Muslims.

That body, set up in 1995 to manage properties for religious and charitable purposes, supports Muslim schools, colleges, hospitals and charitable institutions. It allocates money generated from the properties and donations.

Catholic groups opposed the proposal to treat Church assets in a similar way. They argued that unlike the assets the Waqf Board oversees, Church properties were purchased, not taken from the government as charity.

Archbishop Cornelio, who heads the Church in the state, said the Catholic Church manages its properties following laws and regulations. According to the Divine Word prelate, “There is no need for any additional controlling mechanism.”

The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people’s party), the political arm of groups that want to make India a Hindu theocracy, has ruled the state since December 2003. During this time, scores of attacks on Christians and other minority groups have been reported.

Nonetheless, the BJP government reportedly agreed the Church manages its properties transparently and efficiently, and needs minimal external monitoring.

Archbishop Cornelio had called on the state’s Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan to reject the commission’s recommendation. The commission was established to protect the interests of religious minority communities in Madhya Pradesh, where 91 percent of 60 million people are Hindus.

The controversial proposal led Christians to demand the resignation of their community’s member on the commission, Anand Bernad, who allegedly initiated the proposal.

He “should take the moral responsibility for sending such a proposal and quit his office voluntarily,” Father Anand Muttungal, spokesperson for the Catholic Church in the state, told UCA News.

Bernad declined comment on the issue, citing regulations in place for the mid-April parliamentary election. “I have no comment as the election code of conduct is in force,” he said.

Officials of Madhya Pradesh Isai Mahasangh (Christian grand council) welcomed the government decision. It called off statewide protest rallies and signature campaigns it planned against the proposal.

“We will suspend all our protests, but our agitation against the state minority commission member will continue,” council president Kurishinkal Joshi said in a press release.

Protest rallies took place earlier in several places including Bhopal. Current plans include protesting at the commission office for Bernad to resign and boycotting programs he attends.

In a separate press release, Father Muttungal confirmed the government decision would end five months of protests against the government. “We will not go ahead with any legal action,” he said.