Why Catholic priest who took BJP primary membership in Kerala is now a liability for the party

The 73-year-old Kuriakose Mattam is now housed in an old-age home for retired priests, pending disciplinary action.

ByK A Shaji

Published Oct 05, 2023 | 9:00 AMUpdatedOct 05, 2023 | 9:00 AM

Fr Kuriakose Mattam

The Kerala unit of the BJP is now on a sticky wicket, with the Idukki diocese of the state’s powerful Syro-Malabar Catholic Church hurriedly shifting 73-year-old Fr Kuriakose Mattam to an old-age home meant for retired priests.

This, after the diocese suspended him from priesthood and constituted a committee to look into the circumstances under which the aged priest joined the political party known for its discomfort with minorities.

Over a dozen fellow priests reached Mankuva on Tuesday, 3 October, and took Mattam to a nursing home for priests in the Ernakulam district.

After all, Mattam — till recently the vicar of the St Thomas Catholic Church at Mankuva near Adimali in the Idukki district of Kerala — had created national headlines by accepting the primary membership of the BJP on Monday and giving a clean chit to the party over the violence in Manipur.

Related: Kerala priest relinquishes licence in quest to understand Hinduism

Swift repercussions

BJP Idukki district president K S Aji gives party membership to Catholic priest Fr Kuriakose Mattam. Photo: Supplied

BJP Idukki district president KS Aji gives party membership to Catholic priest Fr Kuriakose Mattam. (Supplied)

It was the first time a Catholic priest in Kerala was joining any political party, and it was dubbed yet another strategic move by the BJP to win over Catholic Christians in Kerala, who started distancing themselves from it ever since the ongoing Manipur violence — which was sparked in May — claimed the lives of many Catholics.

A grand reception was accorded to the priest on the premises of his church under the leadership of BJP Idukki district president KS Aji, and the leaders who attended the event termed it the beginning of the flow of Christians into the fold of the Sangh Parivar.

But the BJP apparently did not expect the Idukki diocese’s quick and stern disciplinary measures against the priest based on the Church’s rules that bar priests from joining political parties.

Within hours of the reception meeting, Idukki Bishop Mar John Nellikunnel removed Mattam from pastoral duties in the parish, in a bolt from the blue for Kerala BJP leadership.

Also read: New party in Kerala clubs goals of Sangh Parivar, Catholic Church

Church’s explanation

When news made it the national media, the Idukki diocese’s Media Commission chairman Fr Jons Karakkat organised a press conference and announced that the aged priest had joined the BJP without the bishop’s permission.

“As per the Canon Law and the Catholic Church Rules, priests cannot join any political party,” he clarified.

He also disclosed that the bishop would appoint a commission to inquire about the incident, and further steps would be taken based on its report, which would be finalised after collecting evidence from the priest and his parish members.

“The unexpected developments might have created tension for Mattam, and we have to create an atmosphere for him to relax. His ailing health is also a concern for us,” said Karakkat, when contacted by South First.

Karakkat also reiterated the resolve of the diocese to remain at an equal distance from all political parties, and to be courteous to different political leaders, irrespective of ideology.

He also said priests must not join any political party as the laity comprises people of different political orientations.

Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC) spokesperson Fr Jacob G Palakkappilly also justified the action, saying a priest is a spiritual leader in a local area and the believers support various political parties. “The priest’s decision will convey a wrong message to the believers and the public,” he said.

Also read: Bishop Pamplany draws CPI(M) ire for denigrating political martyrs

The political puzzle

The Kerala unit of the BJP had sensed trouble with the Idukki diocese’s press conference, and advised the district unit not to respond to announcements, as any such attempt would further alienate the Christians in the state.

The state leadership also told district leaders to go slow on the issue and not put the priest under pressure at any cost.

The BJP deemed that any comment justifying the awarding of membership to the priest would further damage its position across the state.

When South First contacted the BJP’s Idukki district president KS Aji, he was not ready to take responsibility for offering a party membership to the priest.

“We contacted the priest as part of the party’s membership campaign, and he sought to join and work for the party voluntarily. We offered him membership, like we do to all others. He told us that he studied the BJP a lot and found it to be the best party for those who follow the spiritual path,” he said.

Aji did not respond when asked about his earlier comment that Mattam’s joining the BJP indicated Christian sympathy with the party. During the reception meeting, Mattam had claimed the BJP had never been out of bounds for the Christians of Kerala.

Aji told South First that the priest had taken party membership two weeks ago, and the video of the reception accorded to him on Monday was circulated among the public with his permission.

“I don’t know where he is. The party has lakhs of members, and it would be difficult to confirm the whereabouts of each member easily,” he said.

“It is essential for our times that people of all faiths come together. I hope to get more opportunities to work together. In the case of Manipur violence, the BJP had no role,” Mattom said during the reception.

Also read: Continued violence in Manipur unites political rivals in Kerala

From asset to liability

Though South First tried to contact Mattam continuously over the phone for two days, it kept ringing, and the call was never picked up.

Aji said this was the case whenever he tried to contact the priest as well. The church leadership had directed the priest against engaging in any political controversy that could confuse the faithful.

Mattom is only a few months away from retirement from priesthood, and it would be unlikely to award him the charge of any church in the coming days.

A highly placed leader of the BJP, who preferred anonymity, told South First that the priest had turned into a liability from an asset for the party.

He blamed the district leadership for acting hastily by offering party membership to the aged priest without bothering about the repercussions.