Joint Christian Council to renew demand for Bill suggested by law reforms panel
Seventy-year-old Monica Thomas from Erumeli is a devout Christian. But her photograph has been appearing in newspapers along with an advertisement calling for a law to bring church-owned properties in Kerala under a trust elected by parishioners.
Ms. Thomas has accused some members of the clergy of having tricked her into transferring her five acres of rubber plantation in Erumeli to the church. Church authorities say Ms. Thomas approached them to transfer the land and signed the deed of free will.
While the case is coming up for hearing at Ponkunnam Magistrates court on November 28, the allegations have stirred up the debate over a proposed law. The Kerala Christian Church Properties and Institutions Trust Bill was suggested by the Kerala Law Reforms Commission, headed by Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer, in 2009. The debate over the issue, however, is much older.
A report by the commission sought “to enact legislation to control the ownership and management of all forms of properties movable and immovable owned by the church, or diocese.” Under canon law, property owned by the church is under the management of the Pope and the clergy. The commission suggested a committee of trustees elected by parishioners to manage such property.
The Joint Christian Council, an alloy of various Christian denominations in Kerala, has been crusading for the formulation of the bill for several years. The council is also helping Ms. Thomas take her case to the court.
“Such a bill will make the church accountable for the management of its property,” said Indulekha Joseph, a member of the council. “The church’s property should be used for the welfare of the people. Under the present system, there is no way for the laity to keep tabs on the management of this property,” she said. She feels the laity, who may feel reluctant to take up property issues with the priests, would find it easier to discuss such problems with a management trust.
"Property owned by Hindu religious institutions are governed by the Hindu Endowments Act, and the Wakf Act sets out laws for Muslim institutions. However, there are no such laws for the church,” Ms. Joseph said.
Those opposing the formulation of the bill feel it could interfere with church activities. “ The formation of a trust could lead to fights between members of the trust for the management of the property, which could take political colours,” said a member of the clergy.