Are Christians above the Law?

United Press International
December 16, 2008

Hong Kong, China — The Catholic clergy of Kerala province in India organized a mass rally in Thrissur district on Sunday to protest the arrest of two priests and a nun on suspicion of murder. Addressing the rally, the former archbishop of Thrissur, Jacob Thomkuzhy, likened the arrests to the crucifixion of Jesus.

The two priests and the nun were arrested on Nov. 19 this year 16 years after the alleged murder of a 21-year-old nun, Sister Abhaya after a new investigation into the case was opened. Christian leaders were vocal in protesting the reopening of the court's investigation, reports by media, and the interrogation of senior clergymen including two archbishops, Kuriakose Kunnassery and Mathew Moolekat.

Since the arrests, Christian leaders in Kerala have issued regular statements accusing the CBI of working against religious interests. Some senior bishops have also issued statements calling upon the local Christian community to reject the investigation.

The current archbishop of Thrissur, Andrews Thazhath, claimed that the investigation of Sister Abhaya's death and the arrest of three clergy members would not lead to the destruction of the Christian community in Kerala, saying that previous persecutions had only helped the church to grow.

Why is the Christian community so worried about the investigation of a murder case? The fact that Sister Abhaya and the persons accused in the case are members of the clergy is irrelevant as far as the criminal investigation is concerned. Had the Christian community and their so-called spiritual leaders been interested in discovering the truth behind the incident, they should have cooperated with the investigation.

On March 27, 1992, the body of the Catholic nun, Sister Abhaya, was recovered from a well on the compound of the Pius X Convent where she had lived in the state of Kerala. The local police concluded that it was a case of suicide. However, the father of the deceased nun believed that his daughter had no reason to commit suicide and wanted her death investigated.

After strenuous efforts, he succeeded in engaging the criminal branch of the state police to investigate the case. The state police also concluded that the death was a suicide. Sister Abhaya's father then approached the Kerala High Court, which directed the Central Bureau of Investigation to investigate the case.

The CBI officer who started investigating the case in March 1993 subsequently resigned, stating that he was unable to do his job independently due to the intervention of his superior officer, who wanted the case closed as a suicide. After resigning, the officer declared at a press conference that Sister Abhaya did not commit suicide, but was murdered.

Sister Abhaya's father approached the High Court once again, and the court reopened the case. This time, however, the court supervised the investigation and issued directives to the CBI. The renewed investigation resulted in the arrest of two senior Catholic priests and a nun who, according to the CBI, murdered Sister Abhaya and threw her body into the convent's well.

The CBI investigation also suggested a potential motive for the murder. Its report claims that Sister Abhaya had witnessed the nun and the priests in compromising circumstances on the night she was allegedly murdered. There was also a suspicion that she was raped first and then murdered.

So far, not a single clergyman has publicly supported allowing the law to take its course in unraveling the truth. Instead, day after day, bishops, senior priests and nuns continue to issue statements showing their intolerance of India's legal process.

The unwarranted resistance by the clergy reflects their nervousness surrounding the case, its background and the persons accused, as well as those who could possibly be exposed through this case. The statements issued by these holy men and women portray the three accused as saints, intimating that no priest or nun could be a criminal.

Such reactions by the Christian community and its leadership are not rare. In the past, whenever there were allegations of fraud or misappropriation committed by church-run establishments, the Christian leadership resorted to hoisting the flag of persecution of the Christian minority.

Another such incident involved an investigation into the deaths of retreat participants at a Christian retreat center in the Thrissur district.

When allegations surfaced that terminally ill persons brought to the Pota Devine Retreat Center with the promise of "spiritual treatment" died in the process, an investigation of the center was ordered by the state administration. Christian leaders took to the streets, claiming that the state was persecuting Christian establishments. The protest was large enough and the influence of the Christian clergy was strong enough that the investigation was soon withdrawn.

In the case of Sister Abhaya's murder, the Christian clergy is mistaken in claiming the involvement of political interests. It has been a matter of law and procedure, taking its own course. If someone is accused of a crime, the case has to be investigated and the accused brought to trial. This is the law of the country. False allegations and interference with the investigation and the process of law warrants condemnation.

This conduct by the Christian clergy and its leadership is not unique to Kerala or to India. When allegations regarding sodomy and child sexual abuse surfaced in Europe and the United States, the Christian community, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, tried its best to cover up the issue. But the truth ultimately came out. Some of the clergy were even convicted.

By organizing unwarranted protests and issuing unqualified statements against the investigation in Sister Abhaya's case, the Christian leadership in India has once again proven that they are no better than the corrupt politicians in the country.


(Bijo Francis is a human rights lawyer currently working with the Asian Legal Resource Center in Hong Kong. He is responsible for the South Asia desk at the center. Mr. Francis has practiced law for more than a decade and holds an advanced master's degree in human rights law.)


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