12/07/2007, 00.00
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Churches in Andhra Pradesh oppose government grab of their properties

by Nirmala Carvalho
A bill before the state legislature would place Christian institutions under the control of a state commissioner as in the case of Hindu and Muslim institutions. Christians warn it would lead to widespread blackmailing and graft. They also slam the state government for its ignorance of their history and their internal organisation.

Hyderabad (AsiaNews) – Andhra Pradesh’s Christian Churches have launched a campaign against a bill that would place their properties outside of their control. For Fr Anthoniraj Thumma, executive secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Federation of Churches (APFC), this is tantamount to an attack against religious freedom.

Sit-ins, distribution of flyers, banners on buses, taxis and rickshaws are some of the means by which the protest will be conducted next Monday. Church-run schools and colleges might also shut down and a memorandum will be sent to Sonia Gandhi, Congress-I party leader.

According to the government the bill is needed to “protect properties” and maintain “humanitarian services.” It is based on the Hindu Endowments Act and the (Islamic) Wakf Act which are designed to protect the two groups from unscrupulous members who in the past have seized community properties belonging to the two religious groups.

The bill proposes the appointment of a state level commissioner who would identify these properties and the election (every three years) of a council headed by a chairman to act as custodians. Any decision to sell, buy, build, change or tear down any property, old or new, will be under the control of the commissioner and the council and require their authorisation.

According to Church officials, the new legal framework would be counterproductive and end up encouraging threats, abuses and blackmail.

In an interview with AsiaNews, Fr Anthoniraj Thumma, deputy secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Bishops’ Council (APBC) and APFC executive secretary, noted that “properties held by Christian Churches are different from those held by Hindus or Muslims. Hindu or Muslim properties are government endowments or private donations; those held by Christians are bought by Christians or Christian organisations and are therefore private property.”

“These properties are not personal properties; they belong to Church institutions. They are purchased for missionary work, including the provision of health and education services, to benefit Church members and others,” he said.

“Depending on the requirements of the situation or times, they might be used for other missionary purposes. And like any enterprise or company, Churches have the right to buy and sell or change their use in accordance of existing laws.

In addition, said Father Thumma, “unlike in the Hindu and Muslim religions, Churches have well structured systems to administer their properties.” Even many inside the Muslim and Hindu communities are starting to complain about the law and want to opt out of its provisions.

As an alternative to the bill, Churches have proposed setting up a special tribunal to prevent abuses and property grabs for personal use. It would be responsible for recovering properties lost or grabbed through fraud.

For Father Thumma the bill under consideration by the state legislature is symptomatic of a broader ignorance as to how Churches function.

For instance, the bill claims that Christianity has existed in India for about 200 years, leaving out the fact that the first Christian communities to develop in what is now India appeared some 2,000 years ago.

Another example of this lack of understanding is the proposal to have bishops elected by the community, when in fact at least among Catholics bishops are “appointed” by the Church leadership.

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