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Can new body help save Protestant church land?

On Saturday, members of the Church of North India (CNI) will observe a fast and offer prayers at a Grant Road church to draw attention to the unauthorised sale of church property by trustees. Manoj R Nair writes.

india Updated: Jun 07, 2013 01:18 IST
Manoj R Nair

On Saturday, members of the Church of North India (CNI) will observe a fast and offer prayers at a Grant Road church to draw attention to the unauthorised sale of church property by trustees.

Over the last decade, the property scam that has hit Mumbai's Protestant churches has targeted, at various points of time, city landmarks like the Afghan Church, Byculla's Christ Church, Mazgaon's St Peter's School and Malabar Hill's All Saints Church. Before alert community members thwarted it, there were even attempts to sell off land belonging to Mahabaleshwar's Christ Church. In the case of Afghan Church, the fact that the building stood on land owned by the defence ministry was the biggest hurdle in the plan by trustees to sell it. The latest community property that has been targeted by greedy trustees is a school run by the community in Grant Road.

These churches and 155 others were managed by a corruption-ridden trust called the Bombay Diocesan Trust Association (BDTA) which was the custodian of the properties. The BDTA no longer exists: five months ago, the office of the Charity Commissioner suspended its trustees and a government-appointed administrator took over the management of church properties. In fact, before the office of the Charity Commissioner intervened, there were six groups, each claiming to be the trust authorised, in this case, to loot the community's properties. The group that was suspended was the only one recognised by charity officials.

The members of the trust have been suspended for periods; some face a life ban. Elections to the new trust are now due, but members of the community are worried that another set of scamsters will get into the trusts.

Those who are worried are proposing a new administrative setup that will prevent trustees from selling off community property. Santosh Salvi, a Pune-based advocate who is part of the group trying to draw up a new administrative scheme for the churches, says, "As it stands today, it is a precarious situation. The charity commissioner has said that elections will have to be held, but we do not know under which constitution the elections will be held. The old constitution is more than 35 years old and dates back to a time when the Church of North India was not formed." (The CNI was formed in 1970 after the merger of several Protestant denominations.)

Around two weeks ago, a few of them formed a group called 'Christian Rights Protection Committee'. The group plans to petition the Charity Commissioner to accept a new constitution for the BDTA that will prevent trustees from surreptitiously selling off community property under their custody.

The BDTA's old constitution, which gave members of the clergy enormous power over the trust while ignoring the views of churchgoers, is being blamed for the property mess. One of the trustees suspended by the charity commissioner was a former priest.

The new administrative set up, it is claimed, will be more democratic as it will include representatives of various churches whose properties are managed by the BDTA. "We will have one or two members from every church and they will form a council that will elect trustees. There will be no life members and trustees will have to seek election after every three years. In this way, we can protect our property," says Cyril Dara, an advocate and one of the members of the Christian Rights Protection Committee.

The group is in the process of drafting the new scheme which they expect will be ready in a few weeks to be given to the charity commissioner. "As a beneficiary of the trust, I have the right to recommend a new constitution for the trust," adds Dara.

According to Salvi, around 55 properties belonging to the church in Maharashtra and Gujarat have already been sold to builders. "The damage has been tremendous. The church has lost property worth hundreds of crores of rupees and it will never be recovered."