The National Commission for Women's (NCW) recommendation for banning confessions in churches over fears they could lead to women being blackmailed has undoubtedly touched a raw nerve in a section of the clergy in India.
Such ‘confessions’ are a common practice and it was inappropriate for the NCW to challenge it in such a brazen manner on the basis of a stray case of abuse which is believed to have occurred in Kerala. Matters pertaining to religion must not be treated with such casualness and disregard of consequences.
The sensibilities of the followers of the faith must be taken into account and the church itself should first have been advised to dwell on the issue before any outside intervention.
The NCW recommendations came in the backdrop of a rape case against four priests of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in Kerala who have been accused of sexually exploiting a married woman belonging to their church.
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The matter came to the fore after the victim's husband wrote to the church, alleging that the priests had blackmailed and abused his wife, a school teacher, after she confessed to a priest having sexually assaulted her.
The women's commission had set up an inquiry committee to look into the alleged sexual assaults against women in churches. It has sent its findings to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Affairs Minister Rajnath Singh, Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi and the directors general of the Kerala and Punjab police.
NCW chairperson Rekha Sharma, who picked up cudgels said, "The woman was socially harassed. She left her job after the incident as her photograph was circulated on social media. The two priests are at large and they need to be nabbed”.
Earlier, the Supreme Court had also reacted on the issue. It sought a status report of the police investigation in the case related to priests from the Malankara Church. "What is happening in Kerala? Priests are becoming accused in rape cases," the Supreme Court had said.
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In response to the NCW charge, the church sent a memorandum to the Union government calling the recommendation "shocking".
A Kerala bishop's body echoed the church's sentiments in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, accusing the NCW of "abusing its powers" by submitting a "one-sided report" without consulting the church. The body called it an "irresponsible" act done "with ulterior motives”.
Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council president Archbishop Soosa Pakiam said at a press conference in Thiruvananthapuram. "It amounts to insulting the practice of sacrament of confession in the name of an isolated incident, which has yet to be proved. It also amounts to violation of the freedom of faith and religion guaranteed by the Constitution."
Archbishop of Bombay Diocese and president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, also criticised the NCW recommendation, calling it a "direct infringement on our freedom of religion guaranteed by the Indian Constitution."
It is no secret that the church’s relations with the Modi government have been strained and this has led to whispers that the NCW may have been inspired by the Union government though this is unsubstantiated.
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It is indeed wrong of the church to dabble in politics and to adopt a partisan attitude. It needs to be conceded that Christians in India enjoy virtually unfettered freedom of religion, especially when one compares with non-Christian majority countries across the world.
Union Minister of State for Tourism K J Alphons, who is a Kerala Christian, has strongly denied that the Union government has any connection with the stand taken by the NCW. “It is her (Rekha Sharma’s) personal opinion," he said in a Facebook post.
"The Narendra Modi government would never interfere in people's religious beliefs," he insisted. The minister said there was no need for making such a recommendation. "Since it has come, the Modi government rejects it outright," he said.
And so, the matter simmers. With the BJP plunging deeper into politics in Kerala, there is a question mark over the church’s relations with it in future.