Indian priest removed from church posts week after joining Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at the public rally at Brigade ground on April 3, 2019, in Kolkata, India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs to Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at the public rally at Brigade ground on April 3, 2019, in Kolkata, India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs to Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. | Atul Loke/ Getty Images

An Orthodox priest in Kerala, a southern state of India, was relieved of his official duties in the church after he chose to join the Bharatiya Janata Party months before the national election. This party is known for its Hindu nationalist ideology, which has been linked to a surge in violence against the Christian minority in India.

The Malankara Orthodox Church has removed Fr. Shaiju Kurian, who became a member of  the BJP on Dec. 30 during a Christmas celebration organized by the party, Indian Express reported, saying his association with the BJP had sparked controversy within the community and the church is investigating complaints against him.

His decision to join the BJP, along with 47 other church members, led to protests by some churchgoers. The church’s official release stated that Kurian, who served as the secretary of the Nilackal diocese, was removed from all posts during the probe period. The diocesan council has set a two-month timeline for the commission to investigate the complaints.

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The church clarified, however, that it has no policy against priests joining political parties.

Meanwhile, another priest, Fr. Mathews Vazhakunnam, told the Kerala State Women’s Commission about alleged verbal sexual harassment by Kurian against a female church member. Vazhakunnam reportedly suggested that Kurian joined the BJP after learning that the woman planned to report the incident to church authorities.

Kurian has denied all allegations, including the charge of verbal sexual harassment, and claimed that he had requested a few months’ leave from the church.

This incident follows a similar case where the Syro-Malabar church in the state relieved a priest of his pastoral duties after he joined the BJP, according to The South First, which said the Bishop of Idukki, Mar John Nellikunnel, removed Fr. Kuriakose Mattam from his position, citing a lack of necessary permissions for political involvement.

In anticipation of India’s general election scheduled around May, the BJP is actively engaging with the Christian community in Kerala and other regions. The party is seeking its third consecutive five-year term in this upcoming election.

On Christmas Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, from the BJP, hosted Christian leaders for a Christmas lunch in his residence in New Delhi. Days later, more than 3,000 Christians from across the country signed a statement dissociating from the Christian leaders who attended the Christmas lunch.

“While it is certainly within his right as Prime Minister to host a reception for whomsoever he wishes, one naturally would question the intention of this reception when he has not condemned a single attack on the Christians under his prime ministership. Interestingly, while he praised Jesus Christ and waxed eloquent about the services of the Christian community, he did not share remorse or empathy for the situation of the Christians in the country today,” the protesting Christians said in a press release, The Wire reported.

“Those invited to the Christmas reception were a select group of Christians. While the invitation was from the Prime Minister, here was an opportunity for them to courteously decline the invite in the light of what has been happening to the Christians in Manipur and elsewhere,” it continued. “When these Christian representatives spoke at the reception, they were giving a tacit approval to the omission and commission of this government. Hence, their acceptance of this invite was not in our name!”

The first half of 2023 saw a surge in violence against Christians across 23 states in India, according to a New Delhi-based human rights group, United Christian Forum, which identified 400 incidents, up from 274 reported over the same period the previous year.

According to UCF’s findings, the number of violent incidents against Christians has been rising steadily in India since 2014, when the BJP came to power in the country, with a significant spike observed in 2021 and 2022.

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