Government Freezes Convent-reform Proposal on June 13, 2008

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India – Government Freezes Convent-reform Proposal on June 13, 2008. Protests from Church groups have led Kerala’s communist-led government to put on hold a proposal to make laws on a minimum age for girls joining convents and their property rights. The southern Indian state government directed its Women’s Commission, which made the proposals, to give the matter further study and consult with Church leaders. “We will make a detailed study on the topic and submit our recommendations later,” commission chairperson D. Sreedevi told UCA News on June 12.

Her commission on June 3 told media the state should enact a law making 18 years the minimum age for girls to enter a convent. It also sought ways to rehabilitate women who leave Religious life and to ensure their ancestral property remains in their name even after joining a convent. However, Sreedevi told UCA News she would “like to stick to her earlier stand.” The retired judge said she “suggested a few steps to protect the rights and dignity of women in the state.”

Pinarayi Vijayan, state secretary of the Marxist party that leads the state coalition, told UCA News his party would not like to interfere. “I presume the Religious orders have their own rules regarding admissions. I don’t know under what circumstances the commission has made such observations. It’s not proper for our party to comment on such issues,” he remarked.

The government stand came after Church leaders protested. In statements and media discussions, several bishops and Church leaders said the women commission’s proposals showed an ignorance of Church laws.

Father Stephen Alathara, spokesperson for the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council, told media persons the proposals stem from “ignorance of religious affairs and canon law.”

Leaders of the state’s opposition Congress party have also criticized the proposals. Ramesh Chennithala, president of the party’s Kerala unit, said the commission’s remarks on convent life were unwarranted. “Those recommendations were a pre-planned strategy to muzzle religious affairs” of Christians, he told UCA News on June 12. Chennithala demanded the commission apologize and withdraw its recommendations. He charged the communist-led government attempted to hurt the feelings of the religious minorities in the state and gain political mileage. Christians form nearly 19 percent of Kerala’s 31 million people, while Muslims represent close to 25 percent. Hindus mostly make up the rest.

Father Antony Puthenkulam, regional bishops’ commission for religious and diocesan vocation, agreed. The government “backtracked when its plan backfired,” he told UCA News, calling the proposals “an attempt to usurp religious freedom through dubious means.” It is now trying to close the issue, he added “but we will continue our vigil against the government.” According to Father Puthenkulam, many communist leaders have made a habit of issuing statements against the Church and its leaders. “They are testing our patience. The cat-and-mouse game is on for the last two years,” he concluded. The communist-led government came to power in May 2006.

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