Yesterday the Enforcement Directorate (ED) provisionally attached property worth ₹59.52 crore of the Church of South India Trust Association (CSITA). The ED is investigating a money laundering case against the Church.

St. George’s Cathedral in the middle of Chennai is an important centre of Church of South India.

The complaint said that the Church transferred the title of a land in its possession to Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL), but it held no title on the land itself!

Church sold govt land

The land, more than 7500 sq. meter of prime property, was earlier leased to the All Saints’ Church and was a part of the All Saints Church premises. It was sold to the BMRCL against a consideration of ₹59.29 crore in 2019. At that time, the BMRCL was expanding and needed the area, so it acquired the same through Karnataka Industrial Area Development Board (KIADB).

It must be noted that when there was need for more land for the metro, the members of the Church had created hurdles for the same. It is learnt that the land had been given on lease by the British Defence authorities in 1867 to construct a Church for junior ranked officers, pensioners and poor people of the area. Thus, the land of the Church remains under the legal ownership of the govt of Bharat and as such the compensation/consideration amount should have been deposited to the Govt treasury.

What after PAO?

The Provisional Attachment Order or PAO issued by ED has attached the Fixed Deposits, but that is not the end of it. The same has to be forwarded to the Adjudicating Authority created under PMLA Act, 2002. The authority decides whether the PAO is justifiable, and the accused has the right to put forward his point of view. The parties may go to the Appellate Tribunal in case they disagree with the order of Authority and then on to High Court.

However, the PMLA is a criminal law, so criminal proceedings are also started in parallel against the accused. A special PMLA court is constituted for the same in every state. The punishment for money laundering is imprisonment for 3 to 5 years and in certain cases upto 7 years.

Previous land scams by churches

This is not the first time a Church, or people associated with it, has indulged in a scam involving land sale. In recent times many such cases have come to light.

In January 2019, a case from Andhra involving the Church of South India Trust Association (CSITA) came to light. It was found that Archbishop Govada Dyvasirvadam and other persons had fraudulently sold land worth hundreds of crores. The Archbishop was arrested in the case.

In July 2019, a case from UP in which a Bishop of Church of North India fraudulently sold land worth Rs. 10000 crore! Such a big scam did not receive proportionate media scrutiny and most readers would not even be aware about this. The Church has such huge properties as the British granted/leased to the Anglican Church such lands. The Church of North India and Church of South India are protestant Churches which are successor to the Anglican Church. The name was changed and other protestant sects were brought under these a few years after independence.

In July 2020, Hindu Post had reported how a Christian denomination had bought thousands of acres of land in Kerala from the massive donations it received from USA and other countries. A few days ago, we reported how Advent Christian Church Bishop was arrested for fraud involving land.

Church lands : an underused resource?

According to some estimates, the Catholic Church is the biggest private landowner in Bharat.  The Church of South India, the Syro-Malabar Church, the Church of North India etc. follow close behind. Some of these lands that they hold are used in schools, hospitals and other institutions. Even after accounting for that, the Churches are in possession of huge lands. Interestingly, most of these lands were granted or leased to them by the British. British did the same with Zamindars/landlords.

The Bishops manage/mismanage these lands without virtually no control. We have seen a few examples of mismanagement above but these are the cases that have come to light. The actual level of corruption can be revealed only after a detailed inquiry. Indeed, even ordinary Christians have raised voices against such mismanagement many a times.  Unfortunately, government cannot interfare in the management of these lands due to constitutional protections granted to minorities.

One way out of this could be to cancel lease/grants over all lands gifted by the govt of Bharat which are not being  used for institutions such as schools and hospitals, and nationalize those lands. This would free these excess lands for public purposes. This has been done with Zamindars, who had been granted lands by British. Indeed, Bharatiya princes, who had received Privy Purses in lieu of merging their large states into Bharatiya Union, were later deprived of Privy Purses too. So basically, they surrendered their lands without any meaningful compensation. Similar arguments can be given for nationalizing excess lands of Churches in Bharat.

There are international precedents for this too. In France in 1789, all Church property was nationalized. It must be remembered that France still has Catholic majority and before nationalization, Church was one of the largest landholders in France holding about 6% of total area of France. The same was done in Catholic majority Mexico in 19th century. Christian majority Montenegro did it just last year.

It must be noted that properties owned by Hindu temples are already being managed by the govt and are under effective govt possession. The nationalization of such Church property, that is right now lying unused, will be able to provide valuable resources to the government. It must be noted that a significant proportion of these lands are in the heart of our cities. The issue of cheap urban housing, public parks, parkings etc. can be solved to a great extent by using Church lands.

Conclusion

The land frauds by the functionaries of the Christian Churches in Bharat have become a daily phenomenon. Lakhs of crores worth of immovable property is in possession of the Church and a lot of it is accumulated through government grants and leases. These properties, often located in the heart of the city and lying unused, can be used for public purposes by nationalizing it. This nationalization has international precedents, moral justification and it is a practical need as well.


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