God's own country

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By Churches with curious names have mushroomed like fast food joints in Kerala. Debashis Bhattacharyya criss-crosses the state - and discovers that some of them are under a cloud
  • Published 13.07.08

Heavenly Feast doesn’t quite look like a church. Located in Kottayam, the gateway to Kerala’s famous backwaters, it seems more like a fairground under a tin marquee, with dozens of fans to fend off the oppressive heat generated by the roof. But for the giant, illuminated stage, painted with holy words from the Bible, there is little to suggest that Heavenly Feast is a place for prayer.

It’s a Sunday afternoon, and the half-acre compound — with a handful of prefabricated rooms — is teeming with worshippers. Plates in hand, they mill around, gorging on local delicacies.

Heavenly Feast is one of several small-time churches in the state that are under the government’s scanner for amassing “dubious” wealth, as a top Kerala police officer puts it. It has clearly lived up to its telling name, judging by the way the congregation enjoys the meal laid out for them.

From Thiruvananthapuram to Ernakulam and Kottayam to Thiruvalla, small churches — some of them flush with foreign funds — have mushroomed like “fast food joints,” as Kerala Council of Churches’ president Bishop Abraham Mar Paulos puts it. And if there is anything that instantly sets them apart from their mainstream big brothers, it’s their curious names.

Goodlife, New Wine, Power Ministry, Para (or rock in Malayalam) — these are the names of the churches. They also come in different shapes and sizes, with membership varying from 200 to 2,000. If The Master Ministries and Life Fellowship — two churches nestled in leafy neighbourhoods in Ernakulam and Thiruvananthapuram, respectively — look inconspicuous, a screaming billboard announces the Parithrana Retreat Centre, a small church with a warren of rooms for out-of-town worshippers in a little roadside enclave in Kottayam district.

The burgeoning of such churches is a matter of concern to the Kerala government. Christianity, of course, has old roots in Kerala, which accounts for 6.5-million Christians out of India’s Christian population of 24 million. The religion has been flourishing since St Thomas arrived in Kerala in the first century. The state now has three mainstream churches — the Jacobite Church, the Mar Thoma Church and the Church of South India — apart from the Catholic Church and a few smaller ones. Some of the churches in the state are among the oldest in the world and some are rolling in money.

What worries the government — and the state intelligence agencies — is not just the proliferation of the small churches but the way several of them allegedly misused foreign donations received for charity to buy land and property. The director general of police (intelligence), Jacob Punnoose, maintains that some of them are “fronts” for grabbing land, which is scarce and expensive in the small, densely populated state with 14 districts and 32 million people.

Topping the list of churches accused of amassing considerable property by the state criminal investigation department’s special branch is Bishop K.P. Yohannan’s Believers Church in Thiruvalla. According to Kerala home minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, the church, formed under a trust called Gospel for Asia, has received Rs 1,044 crore in foreign donations in the last 15 years. Using that money, the home minister says the church has bought nearly 2,800 acres of land, including a 2,200-acre rubber estate.

Worse, the seven-member Gospel for Asia trust is found to have been packed with Yohannan’s family members, including his wife, children and brothers. “It’s all highly irregular and unlawful,” Balakrishnan says, explaining that under the law, a family can hold only 15 acres.

The revenue department has been asked to “take over” 580 acres, pending an inquiry into how the “church had bought the 2,200-acre rubber estate from a private company when the estate was on leasehold and thus not saleable,” he says.

Such churches have been thriving for several years now, but the issue snowballed into a controversy in May when Swami Chaitanya, a local priest, was picked up from his Kochi ashram for raping three minor girls and keeping sleazy videos of his sexual assaults in a bank locker. The public outcry that followed ballooned into a spontaneous movement against “fake” god men from different religions, prompting the Kerala government to order a police investigation into religious establishments. Heavenly Feast, set up by one Mathew Kuruvilla, aka Thanku Brother, figures in the thick intelligence dossier the state CID has drawn up, based on its inquiries into a whopping 360 entities from different religions.

Foreign donations — mostly from evangelical groups and churches in the US, Europe and Australia — are being probed. The government does not distinguish between religious and non-religious voluntary associations when it comes to foreign funding but the union home ministry says foreign donations have been steadily increasing in Kerala. In 2003-2004, it got Rs 422.64 crore in foreign funds, which leaped to Rs 656.27 crore in 2005-2006. According to the latest figures available with the ministry, Kerala was fourth among all states in terms of foreign donations.

For both Gospel for Asia and Believers Church, the foreign donations have increased manifold over the years. Gospel for Asia’s Rs 2.65 crore in 2003-2004 shot up to Rs 58.29 crore in 2005-2006. Believers Church’s foreign donations went up from Rs 36.88 crore to Rs 78.62 crore during the same period.

To be sure, not all small-time churches receive foreign funds. Pastor Sam T. Varghese, who founded the Life Fellowship church in Thiruvananthapuram in 1996 with barely 20 people, says they don’t even have the special bank account that is needed for foreign donations under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act of 1976. “All our funds come from our members through offerings. We even took out a bank loan to build the church in 2002,” Varghese, 46, says, adding that he doesn’t even own a house. “We want to be transparent not just to God but also to the government,” says Varghese, whose church has 2,000 members.

Clearly, funding is not the main reason scores of churches have sprung up in the state. In some ways, says Sunil Mani of the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, they represent a “rebellion” against the rigid, established church order. He says the new entities are mostly evangelical and focus on faith healing.

The new-age informal churches, with little or no hierarchy and run by priests mostly trained at a theology seminary in Serampore, near Calcutta, are also redrawing the way Christians have practised their religion in Kerala for generations. “It’s all about singing and dancing and this is what they do in these so-called churches,” says Bishop Paulos, who also heads the Trivandrum-Quilon diocese of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church. But there is no denying that small churches are popular — a fact Paulos also acknowledges.

Some attribute the growth to the failure of mainstream churches. “The big, mainline churches are no longer clued in on what’s going on in the community and the economic and social problems, so they are trying to find succour elsewhere,” says Kerala Council of Churches’ secretary Philip N. Thomas, a retired physics professor from Thiruvalla.

Not everyone agrees that the small churches are posing a threat to the established order. “Some people are leaving for small churches for personal reasons. This doesn’t pose any threat to us” says Reverend Jacob P. Samuel, treasurer of the Church of South India’s central Kerala diocese.

Seemingly, being small helps when it comes to churches. Unlike the big ones where people usually go on Sundays for a couple of hours, their smaller counterparts are on “flexitime.” “Sometimes, I go there three times a week to meet or counsel someone having problems. Besides, whenever in trouble, they give me a missed call on my mobile and I call them back,” says Reverend Jebaraj, acting principal of Yohannan’s Gospel for Asia Biblical Seminary, who also doubles as a pastor of the Believers Church in Thiruvalla.

Of course, in many cases, the phrase small churches is a misnomer. Believers Church, for instance, sprawls over 175 acres on the outskirts of Thiruvalla — and includes a residential school. It is almost a self-contained unit, with chickens and cows for poultry and dairy products. A dining hall — with a futuristic design — seats 543 people.

Yohannan was unavailable for comment but a close aide rails against the government and the media for “tarnishing” the church’s image. “All the foreign funds we receive are kept in banks and are accounted for. We have not cheated anybody or misappropriated any funds,” he says, refusing to answer further questions.

At far-away Heavenly Feast in Kottayam, 30-year-old evangelist Renju Mathew, wearing a black shirt and a pair of faded jeans and Nike knockoffs, is busy chatting to a group of young men. “They were on drugs, but now they are reformed and a part of the congregation,” he says. “It’s all because we reached out to them.”

“Personal service” matters to the people in the community and this is what many of the small churches provide. “This is what the big churches once did. We now do it, so they are coming to us,” says Thomas Abraham, co-founder of Heavenly Feast. He says the small churches are a big hit with the young as “we provide excitement by way of songs, dances and miracle cures.”

Abraham bemoans the way the organisation is being “targeted” even though “we have done nothing wrong.” Mathew cuts in. “We are patriotic Indians who play the national anthem in our main meetings,” he says.

But with the skeletons tumbling out of church closets, some community leaders feel the time has come to rein in the “errant” bodies giving everybody a “bad name.” The only way to stem corruption, says Indian Institute of Christian Studies director Joseph Pulikunnel, is to enact a law and set up a board. “If the Hindu Endowment Act and the Waqf board can handle temple or mosque properties, why shouldn’t we have something similar for the church as well?” says the 76-year-old Christian activist.

Not surprisingly, the Kerala government is already mulling legislation to distinguish public trusts from private ones to prevent misuse. “At present, we have no power to intervene, so you can pack a public trust with family members the way Gospel for Asia has done. But this will all change once this new Act comes into being in the next session of the Assembly,” says the home minister.

All of this hurts Pastor N.A. Damien, who founded The Master Ministries in Ernakulam three years ago. A top scorer in school and college, his parents had wanted him to take up a “regular, 10-5” job after he graduated in physics and completed his Master’s in English. But he found the “call of God” too strong to ignore and gave up his job in a publishing firm in 1997 to devote himself to his church.

Damien says he was unperturbed when plainclothesmen came to his church unannounced in May to check his accounts. “They were fully satisfied.

I always believe that you are accountable to both God and government.”

If only everybody in “God’s own country” thought that way