400 priests in Kerala booked for violating Covid protocols
Kerala police on Thursday booked around 400 priests, including Church of South India (CSI) South Kerala Diocese Bishop Dharmaraj Rasalam, for allegedly flouting Covid-19 protocol as hundreds attended a religious retreat in the hill town of Munnar in Idukki district of the state last month.
The incident came to light after two priests died of Covid-19 last week and more than 100 participants reportedly tested positive after the event, organised by the CSI Christ Church in Munnar between April 13-17. Overall, around 400-450 people, a majority of them priests, attended the event, according to reformist groups in the church.
The event was organised at a time the state, like much of the country, is witnessing a surge in Covid-19 cases. On Thursday, Kerala added a record 42,464 cases with a test positivity rate of 27.28%, an all-time high for the state. It also announced an 8-day lockdown, starting May 8, that banned all gatherings.
A case was registered after district officials inquired about the incident and found on Wednesday that around 450 people attended the meeting after flouting pandemic norms. District collector H Dinesh later asked the police to register a case against them. Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan termed the incident “unfortunate” on Wednesday.
Some of the reformist groups in the church alleged that a section of priests was forced to attend the retreat after church authorities threatened them with disciplinary action. There were many attempts to hush up the incident and most of the people infected after attending the event were shifted to a medical college run by the church along the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border discreetly, they alleged.
“Photo session of the retreat shows all norms were flouted. None of them were wearing masks. We alerted some top officials about this, but no action was taken then,” said Jacob Mathew, a member of the Joint Christian Council, a reformist group.
But the church maintained that all precautions were taken and 28 priests tested positive, not 100. “The event was planned much early and we met all norms. Most of the priests were infected weeks after the event,” said diocese secretary TT Praveen.
Church officials refused to comment on other allegations.
“We have booked them under Section 269 of the IPC (unlawful gathering) and provisions of the epidemic management control act. Since majority of them are undergoing treatment we have to wait for further probe. Our preliminary investigation show 480 participated in different batches in different days. We have booked them as unidentifiable now other than the bishop,” said Munnar deputy SP R Suresh.
Among infected are Church of South India (CSI) South Kerala Bishop, Father Dharmaraj Rasalam. Two priests who attended the retreat -- Father Bijumon (52) and Rev Shine B Raj (43) -- died last week after contracting Covid-19.
The Munnar event is the latest religious event to hit the headlines for holding large gatherings as the second wave of the pandemic ravages the country.
On May 3, hundreds of women gathered for a religious event in violation of the Covid-19 norms at a village in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad district to “eradicate coronavirus”, police said, adding that 23 had been arrested.
Over 9.1 million pilgrims attended the Mahakumbh in Uttarakhand’s Haridwar from January to April this year even as states battled shortage of medical supplies. At least 100 seers and mela officials were infected with Covid-19 and four died from the viral illness, authorities said. Experts also say pilgrims who returned to their home states after the event may have fastened local outbreaks.
Last year, one of India’s first large outbreaks was attributed to the weeks-long congregation of the Tablghi Jamaat in March in New Delhi.