Cardinal urges caution in India-Italy row
Cardinal George Alencherry urged
the Kerala government not to precipitate the controversy.
Posted on February 22, 2012, 8:20 A
India’s new cardinal has urged the Kerala government not to precipitate the controversy over the killing of fishermen by Italian mariners.
"I immediately contacted the Catholic ministers to ask the Kerala government not to take precipitate action," Cardinal George Alencherry, major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, yesterday told Fides news agency in Rome.
The cardinal also urged Kerala’s opposition parties not to exploit the situation. "It seems that the opposition wants to manipulate the situation for political motives by talking about Western powers and the drive for American domination,” the news agency quoted the cardinal as saying.
The congress party led by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi heads Kerala’s ruling United Democratic Front. The opposition Left Democratic Front is led by the Communist Party of India’s Marxist faction.
The cardinal’s comments came a day after a magistrate in Karunagapally near Kollam remanded in custody for two weeks the two guards of an Italian oil tanker accused of killing the fishermen on February 15. She has also allowed the police three days to question marines Latorre Massimillaino and Salvatore Girone.
The police arrested them on Sunday triggering a diplomatic row between India and Italy.
Italy wants the mariners released on bail arguing that they shot the fishermen mistaking them for pirates in international waters. The Indian side says the shooting of the unarmed fishermen took place in Indian waters.
Cardinal Alencherry said he would give the controversy his “constant attention” in coming days. He was in Rome along with 21 other prelates to receive the cardinal’s red hat from the Pope on Saturday.
Federal Minister of State for Agriculture K. V. Thomas, a Catholic from Kerala, had accompanied the cardinal.
The Kerala Church leader said the minister is a “man of great moral stature and significant influence, both in the local and in the central government, who has assured me of his maximum effort.
Italy has sought diplomatic immunity for the pair who was part of a six-member naval security team on board the MV Enrica Lexie tanker.
“Italians want the prosecution and investigation done according to UN rules and not per Indian laws. But we maintain the killings happened within Indian waters. Now only the court will have the final word,” said P. Chandrasekhran, additional director general of police.
According to an Italian Foreign Ministry press release, the presence of armed guards on board the ship was permissible under Italian law and in line with UN resolutions.
Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi reportedly said there are “considerable differences” with India over the killing of the fishermen.Source: Deccan Herald/ucanews.com
Cardinal George Alencherry , Italy , Ship
Is cardinal Alencherry more loyal to Italy than Kerala?
Catholic church head defends killing of Kerala fishermen by Italian security guards
Major Archbishop Mar George Alencherry, 66, was ordained cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI at a serene ceremony in the imposing St. Peter's Basilica at Vatican on February 18. With this, the head of the Kerala-based Syro-Malabar Church-India's largest and richest Catholic church with 3.7 million members-joined an elite group of 213 cardinals that elects the next successor to the 84 year-old Pope. But barely three days after he recited the traditional oath of loyalty to the church before the Pope, Mar Alencherry and his church face a serious charge at home: are they more loyal to Italy than to their own country and people?
The charge arose after the cardinal's interview in Rome to Agenzia Fides, the Vatican's official news agency. Alencherry spoke about the fatal shooting of two Indian fishermen off the Kerala coast allegedly by the security guards stationed on board the Italian oil tanker, Enrica Lexie, on February 16.
"I am and will remain in close contact with the Catholic ministers of Kerala and I hope that they will help to pacify the situation. In particular, I trust in the work of the Tourism Minister, the Catholic K.V. Thomas, who participated in the consistory in Rome in the past days and attended the mass with the Holy Father and the new cardinals. He is a man of great moral stature and of significant influence, both in the local and Central Government, and he assured me his maximum effort. I guarantee, in the next few days, my constant involvement with the Indian authorities on the matter," Agenzia Fides quoted him as saying.
"I learned the story of the Catholic fishermen killed; it is very sad. I immediately contacted the Catholic ministers of Kerala urging the government not to act precipitatedly. In the episode, of course, there were errors, since the fishermen were mistaken for pirates. But the point is another. It seems that the opposition party wants to take advantage of the situation and exploit the case for electoral reasons, speaking of 'Western powers' or the 'will of American dominance'," the Vatican agency quoted him.
Christians make up 19 per cent of Kerala's 33 million population and are a powerful community. The Latin Catholic and Syro-Malabar Church are the predominant Catholic denominations. Kerala has the maximum number of dioceses, 29 districts under the supervision of a bishop. They form an influential political block. The Syro-Malabar Church, with 3.7 million adherents, is the richest religious organisation in the state. One of the largest recipients of foreign contributions, it has assets worth more than Rs.1,000 crore. Its economic clout rests in over 5,000 schools, colleges, hospitals and technical training institutions that it runs.
The archbishop's reported remarks have kicked up a furore because most of the state's fisherfolk, including the two slain persons, belonged to the Latin Catholic Church. Kerala is stunned by the killing. The state police have arrested the two marines on charges of murder and have also seized the ship. These measures have been opposed by the Italian officials who maintained their crew can be tried only under international law. "I like to believe that the cardinal did not say such things. Hope he would understand our family's grief too," says Derec, 17, son of Jelestin, one of the dead fishermen. Besides political leaders, fishermen's organisations and even members from the Latin Catholic Church have expressed dismay at the cardinal's reported remarks.
The cardinal has also dragged in K.V. Thomas, Union minister of state for agriculture and food, into the controversy. Thomas was present at the Vatican where Alencherry was ordained as cardinal. The minister denied having discussed the issue with the cardinal. "We are all for taking the most stringent action against the culprits," he said.
Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Steffan de Mistura, who flew down to New Delhi on February 22, apologised over the incident to his Indian counterpart Preneet Kaur. The minister said that he would travel to Kerala and express regret to the families of the murdered fishermen. According to an official present at the meeting, Mistura insisted that the two personnel be tried in accordance with Italian or international laws. He was told by Kaur that the two security personnel would be tried according to Indian law. "As far as the law is concerned, they have their interpretations and we have our interpretations," Kaur told the media. "As far as we are concerned in India, we will go by our law," she said. Mistura then jetted down to Thiruvananthapuram, where Chief Minister Oommen Chandy told him the same thing. The law would take its course.
Coast Guard officials say there is no ambiguity in the law when it comes to trying the Italian security personnel for murder. Section 188 A makes the Indian Criminal Procedure Code applicable throughout India's Exclusive Economic Zone (200 nautical miles from the coastline).
Faced with public outcry over Alencherry's statement, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) and the Syro-Malabar Church hurriedly issued statements saying the cardinal was misquoted. "The cardinal did not utter many of those words. All he said was that the issue be resolved without upsetting the mutual relations of India and Italy. How can he say this when the poor fishermen who were killed were also Catholics?" explained Fr Paul Thelakat, spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church. But the damage has already been done, and his remarks are on record.
According to Thelakat, the cardinal wanted an amicable settlement as he was apprehensive about how the incident would affect Indians in Italy and those working on Italian ships. "The cardinal told me he did not speak to any minister on the issue nor did he intend to meddle in the legal course of action," he said.
The chief minister, too, has said that none of his ministers was involved in any mediation on the issue. "All arguments put forward by the crew of the Italian ship are unacceptable to us. We will go to the maximum extent to book those who shot our citizens. Our government has all support from the Central Government and, particularly, from the external affairs ministry," said Chandy.
The Syro-Malabar Church, one of the 22 autonomous oriental churches in global Catholic communion, surpasses Kerala's all other religious organisations in economic might as well as political clout. Traditionally, the Syro-Malabar Church's writ has gone unchallenged in the Congress. The church has not only a direct role in policy formulations but it even hands out its list of preferred candidates during every election. The anti-communist political formations in the state receive its most formidable ballast from the Syro-Malabar Church and the Latin Catholic Church. This church led the "liberation struggle". It saw the dismissal of India's first elected communist government which came to power in Kerala in 1957. Ever since, the Syro-Malabar Church has always played a direct role in politics and has issued pastoral letters calling for defeating the communists in every election. The power of the church became evident even in the latest controversy. Even when most sections in Kerala condemned the cardinal's comments, the silence of Chandy and udf leaders was eloquent. "I don't want to comment. Since the Syro-Malabar Church itself has said that the cardinal's comments were misquoted, there is no need to comment," the chief minister said. None in the government has uttered a word against the cardinal's remarks.
Opposition leader V.S. Achuthanandan said that if the comments ascribed to the cardinal were correct, it was unfortunate. "He should not have made those comments. It is strange that the cardinal has reportedly made these comments in Union minister Thomas's presence," he said. The cardinal's reported comments have also angered the Latin Catholic church. Members of the Kollam diocese of the church protested against the comments. Fearing a potential split in the Catholic community, the Latin Catholic Church's head archbishop Dr Soosaipakyam swiftly intervened to say that the cardinal would never have made such anti-national comments. "His words must have been misconstrued. It is sad that the Vatican and the Pope are being needlessly drawn into this controversy by interested parties," he said. He also added that the Vatican does not meddle in the temporal affairs of churches in other countries.
Various fishermen bodies, too, have expressed dismay over the cardinal's reported comments. "It is extremely unfortunate that there are people from Kerala out to defend those Italians who shot dead our own people," the Kerala Fishermen Federation said in a statement.
The BJP, too, has joined issue, asking Chandy to intervene and explain. "Are his ministers subservient to the people or their church?" asked V. Muralidharan, state BJP president. Some angry fishermen have even hinted at Congress President Sonia Gandhi's Italian origins to charge that the Congress-led governments at the state and the Centre would not show courage to initiate action against the Italian ship.
On February 18, Alencherry became the 10th Indian bishop and fourth from Kerala to become cardinal. He is the first elected head of the Syro-Malabar Church. Alencherry, who has studied biblical theology from Sorbonne University, was installed as the archbishop in May 2011. The controversy over his comments will cast a long shadow over the church as the trial of the Italian marines unfolds.