In a first, Kerala’s Syro-Malabar Catholic Church constitutes Ecclesiastical Court to try a dissenting priest

Fr Thomas Puthiyaparambil created headlines when he accused the Church leadership of being pro-Hindutva and Islamophobic.

ByK A Shaji

Published Oct 06, 2023 | 3:29 PMUpdatedOct 06, 2023 | 4:00 PM

Fr Ajimon Puthiyaparambil Catholic Church Kerala

Four months after a priest affiliated with Kerala’s powerful Syro-Malabar Catholic Church created a sensation by quitting active ministry duties, a four-member Ecclesiastical Court was constituted on Friday, 6 October, to conduct “penal judicial procedures” against him.

The priest quit his duties in May, protesting against the Christian leaders in Kerala making common cause with the Sangh Parivar and its politics of hate and division.

This is the first time that the Syro-Malabar Church has constituted such a trial court, which resembles the now-infamous inquisition courts of the previous centuries, instituted to combat heresy apart from conducting trials of suspected heretics.

Syro-Malabar Church is the second-largest eastern segment of the global Catholic Church after the Ukrainian Church and the largest Christian group in India, with 4.6 million believers.

Interview: ‘Church in Kerala is giving foothold to BJP-RSS hate politics’

‘Priest tarnished Church’s image’

Thamarassery bishop house

The headquarters of Thamarassery diocese. Photo: Supplied

It is not yet known whether the trial in the Church court would be in conflict with the country’s rules and legal procedures.

The order issued by Remigiose Inchananiyil, the bishop of Thamarassery in Kozhikode, said the Church was forced to constitute “a tribunal for penal judicial procedures” against Fr Thomas Puthiyaparambil, better known as Ajimon Puthiyaparambil, in the face of his repeated statements tarnishing the image of the Church before the general public.

Senior priests contacted by South First confirmed that it would be an Ecclesiastical Court and that the trial would be conducted as per the Global Catholic Church Canon rules.

Senior priest George Mundanatte, the managing director of the church-run Malayalam newspaper Deepika, will be the presiding judge. Fr James Kallingal and Fr Antony Varakil will act as collegiate judges, while Fr John Pallikkavayalil will be the notary.

In addition, Fr Mathew Pulimoottil has been assigned as the “promoter of justice”. Till the completion of the process, Puthiyaparambil will not be assigned to any parish, and he is mandated to stay at the Good Shepherd Priest Home at Marykunnu in Kozhikode.

The order accused the 46-year-old priest of engaging deliberately and repeatedly in scandalous activities that caused irreparable damage to the Church and required serious intervention and redressal.

The charges against the priest included attempting to mislead the faithful into rioting against the bishop.

The order also accused him of engaging in indiscipline by not obeying strictures from the Syro-Malabar Synod, the Church’s highest decision-making body.

Related: Syro-Malabar Church opposes legalisation of same-sex marriages

‘Incited sedition and hatred’

Bishop Mar Remigiose Maria Paul Inchananiyil

Bishop Mar Remigiose Maria Paul Inchananiyil

Inchananiyil accused him of “inciting sedition and hatred towards the hierarchy, provoking the faithful to commit disobedience through public speeches and messages on social media”.

The order also found him guilty of disobedience, as he was not ready to stay at the priest’s home in Vellimadukunnu after his suspension, as demanded by the higher-ups in the Church.

The bishop also accused the priest of violating Canon Rules 1446, 1447, and 1448.

The order said the tribunal would decide on the appropriate penal sanctions “to be taken to repair the damages and scandal” caused by Puthiyaparambil through the acts of “disobedience and anti-ecclesial activities violating the disciplinary norms of the Church”.

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Vendetta, says Puthiyaparambil

When contacted by South First, Puthiyaparmabil termed the move an act of vendetta by a section of the Church leadership for exposing their deeds that contradicted the teachings of Jesus Christ. He said he would continue with the course-correction measures and that there would be no let-up in his mission to engage in positive criticism.

“Jesus has entrusted me with a prophetic role, and I am bound to do it,” he said.

On whether he would cooperate with the Church-appointed court, he said the decision would be made after certain consultations.

The priest earned the wrath of the Church soon after he refused to accept parish ministry at Nooramthode parish in Kozhikode as directed by the diocese in May and detailed the reasons in a Facebook post.

In a subsequent interview with South First, he explained why he was finding fault with the church leaders for having a soft corner towards the BJP-RSS, which also worsened matters.

In a letter written on 13 May to the parishioners in Nooramthode, the priest announced his decision to quit “active ministry” in the Church over its getting close to the right wing, as well as the “general decay” in the institution that was “taking it away from Jesus”.

He warned the Church against Islamophobia and the appeasement of majoritarian communalism.

Related: Catholic priest who took BJP membership now a liability for the party

Priest questions Church’s politics

Fr Ajimon Puthiyaparambil

Fr Ajimon Puthiyaparambil

“I will continue to be a sanyasi (monk), adhering to the founding principles of the global Catholic Church and the catechism laid out in the Holy Bible. It’s up to the church leadership to defrock me,” he told South First in that interview.

“Whatever disciplinary actions, I will continue to be a sanyasi, spreading the inclusive message of Christianity that reaches out to the meek and poor, transcending religions and politics,” he added.

“I believe in spirituality not fragmented by communal and casteist preferences. I have written to the administrators of the Thamarassery diocese under the Syro-Malabar Church, declining to accept any parish ministry. In a way, it violates the principles of obedience and loyalty to the Church. But I believe it’s my protest against the decay within the Church that must be addressed and rectified,” he further said.

Adding that the Church should not be involved in politics, the priest said: “In my case, the objections are not limited to Kerala’s Christian leadership helping the BJP-RSS implement its communal and divisive agenda. The Christian Church should not be involved in any active politics. Spiritual leaders must stay away from political parties, and their opinions must not influence the political preferences of the laity.”

“Let people choose their political alliances using their own social experiences and wisdom. Why should religious leaders dictate their terms,” the priest with two decades of service asked.

“In Kerala, the Catholic Church has a long and dubious legacy of opposing communist parties on flimsy grounds and supporting the Congress. When the Congress became weak, the church leadership is now mending fences with communists on one side and the BJP-RSS on the other,” he said.

“It smacks of sheer opportunism. What’s spiritually involved in it? What is the larger public interest in it? Some church leaders need undue favours from the governments in power,” he points out.

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