Kerala church poll advice to priests

In a secret letter, bishop Mar John Nellikunnel urged the priests to refrain from 'election related propaganda'

By K.M. Rakesh in Bangalore
  • Published 14.03.19, 3:57 AM
  • Updated 14.03.19, 3:57 AM
  • 2 mins read
Mar John Nellikunnel Source: The Diocese of Idukki website

A Kerala church has reined in its priests from taking sides in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in an apparent attempt to neutralise a group that had actively supported the Left Democratic Front in the 2014 polls.

In a secret letter, the bishop of Idukki, Mar John Nellikunnel, urged the priests to refrain from “election related propaganda, statements and meetings”.

“As the Parliament election is approaching there are anxieties, taking sides and sometimes inappropriate

verbal exchanges. These things will harm us all,” the bishop said in the letter, circulated in a WhatsApp group of 187 clergymen of the Idukki diocese of the Roman Catholic Church.

“As spiritual leaders of our people we are not taking any position favouring any sides. Our people do not want us to be actively involved in election politics in the present context. Our people are intelligent enough to decide in elections,” Bishop Nellikunnel wrote.

Church sources said the letter could set a precedent for other dioceses as politicians always knock on church doors ahead of elections.

The Roman Catholic Church had rarely taken sides officially in elections till the 2014 polls.

The letter highlighting the Church’s pastoral mission is being viewed as a move to pipe down a pro-Left group that took shape under the leadership of the earlier bishop, Mar Mathew Anikkuzhikkatil.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Anikkuzhikkatil had supported Left-backed Independent Joice George, who won by a landslide margin of over 50,000 votes in the constituency of 12 lakh voters.

Anikkuzhikkatil had even spoken against the Congress candidate, Dean Kuriakose. The leader had visited the then Idukki bishop’s house, but it did not yield any results.

The new bishop, Nellikunnel, who took over in April 2018, is, however, not keen on supporting any political party and stick to the practice of the Church staying neutral.

But a local organisation fighting for land rights on the Western Ghats, which has as members some clergymen, has declared support for the LDF candidate in Idukki.

The 12-year-old High Range Samrakshana Samithi, which had received the support of Anikkuzhikkatil, has as members clergymen, the general public and Hindu community organisations, and has traditionally supported the LDF.

“We have expressed our support for Joice since the LDF stood for our concerns on issues relating to the high range,” HRSS convener Fr. Sebastian Kochuppurakkal told The Telegraph on Wednesday.

“The Catholic Church never gets involved with elections and politics. But considering the situation that prevailed in 2014, the Church supported the LDF,” he said.

Among the concerns of the people of Idukki were the lack of title deeds for their properties and farmland, development issues and the threat of losing their hearth and livelihood once the recommendations of the Kasturirangan Report on the Western Ghats are implemented.

“Our people, irrespective of religion, were concerned about losing everything if the report was implemented. Since the LDF understood our worries, we supported them,” said Kochuppurakkal.

The Kasturirangan Report seeks to bring 37 per cent of the Western Ghats under the Ecologically Sensitive Area zones and recommended prohibition on development activities on 60,000sqkm of ecologically sensitive areas spread over Kerala, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa and Tamil Nadu.

Kochuppurakkal said the HRSS had supported the LDF in the 2016 state Assembly elections as well.

The Congress-led United Democratic Front lost Idukki in 2014.

The Congress welcomed Bishop Nellikunnel’s move. “It’s a good sign for us and we hope to win back Idukki,” district unit president Ibrahimkutty Kallar told this newspaper.

A CPM leader said the party was not worried about the bishop’s letter.

“In 2016 we won five of the seven Assembly seats in Idukki. So such a letter won’t have much bearing on our performance even this time as the people are with us,” said the leader who didn’t want to be named.