Friday, July 27, 2007

Communists meet bishops to prevent church-state clash

Ministers and supporters of Kerala's communist government have been meeting with Catholic bishops to avoid a church-government confrontation in the southern Indian state.

On July 24, Public Works Minister T. U. Kuruvila and P.J. Joseph, leader of a coalition partner, met Archbishop Joseph Perumthottam of Changanacherry and his predecessor, Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Powathil, who heads the ecumenical Inter-Church Council for Education in the state.

The day before, Law Minister M. Vijayakumar talked with Latin-rite Archbishop Maria Calist Soosa Pakiam of Trivandrum.

Trivandrum is the old name of Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital, 2,815 kilometers (about 1,750 miles) south of New Delhi.

On July 25, the ruling Left Democratic Front authorized Kerala's Chief Minister V. S. Achuthanandan to conduct discussions with Church leaders, a party spokesperson told media.

Kuruvila confirmed that the chief minister and Education Minister M. A. Baby are to meet Church leaders in early August.

After the July 24 meeting, Kuruvila told UCA News, "I just came to prepare a ground for the talks and the archbishops' initial responses were positive."

However, Archbishop Powathil remains skeptical. The politicians' "words and deeds do not match," he told UCA News, and church leaders are interested in talks only if the government is "sincere."

The ministers began to meet the bishops after church leaders announced they will stand united and fight the "anti-minority policies" of the Marxist-led coalition government.

The church's public opposition began on July 3 when a pastoral letter from Archbishop Andrews Thazhath of Trichur threatened to launch a Vimochana Samaram (liberation struggle).

Since then, several other prelates also issued pastorals urging Catholics to oppose the government move. They say it is a violation of constitutional rights, particularly the right of religious minority groups to establish and manage their own educational institutions without state interference.

The prelates have accused the government of running political campaigns against church leaders. They also maintain that the government plans to take church schools that accept government grants and give them to panchayat (local administrative bodies).

That move would empower panchayat to appoint teachers and administer schools. The church now manages most aided schools in Kerala.

When Catholicos Baselios Isaac Mar Cleemis, head of the Syro-Malankara Church, addressed a press conference on July 20, he criticized the government for going against the church "as if with a vengeance."

As bishops issued separate pastoral letters, Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil of Ernakulam-Angamaly, who as major archbishop heads the Oriental Catholic rite, convened a meeting of Syro-Malabar Church (SMC) metropolitans on July 23.

SMC spokesperson Father Paul Thelakat told UCA News, "The meeting discussed anti-minority policies and strategies to counter government-sponsored, anti-church campaigns."

He also told media that the SMC bishops decided to unite and join with like-minded people to fight the "anti-minority" policies.

"We are open for discussion, but we will not yield to blackmailing tactics," Father Thelakat asserted, indirectly referring to a government threat to withdraw recognition of some church-managed educational institutions.

Christians account for just 19 percent of Kerala's 31.8 million people but are economically strong and politically decisive in some fields.

Besides the SMC, the Indian Catholic Church includes the Latin and Syro-Malankara rites.

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