An attempt on the life of Thrissur Archbishop Mar Jacob Thoomkuzhy, one of the contenders for the top post in the three-million-strong Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala, has come to light.
The bid was made on August 2. During a special mass he conducted in a church near Thrissur for the ordination of nuns, sulphuric acid was mixed with the wine given for his consumption. Fortunately, the archbishop took only a small gulp as he felt a burning sensation. The priest who assisted him in the mass consumed the rest, injuring himself seriously.
Both had to be rushed to the hospital before they completed the mass. While the archbishop was discharged after 10 days, the other priest had to spend more than a month in hospital. Mar Jacob Thoomkuzhy, who suffered burns on his oesophagus, was on liquid diet for several days after his discharge.
Shockingly, the Church had tried to suppress the matter. It was not even reported to the police, which led to speculations in church circles.
When reports about the incident appeared in a section of the media after several days, the chancellor of the arch diocese issued a statement claiming that the archbishop had consumed wine which was accidentally mixed with 'diluted battery water'. According to him, the battery water was kept in the mineral water bottle near the altar.
The statement did not clarify several crucial points such as how the acid reached the vestry or how it was transferred to the mineral water bottle and carelessly kept near the altar.
The search for answers to these questions leads to more intriguing questions. Interestingly, the sacristan who used to arrange the mass every day was absent during the incident. He had instructed the nuns not to use ordinary water for mass, only mineral water. The nuns had no reason to doubt the sacristan and used the liquid in the mineral water bottle.
There has not been any explanation why the sacristan remained absent on the day the church had a VIP guest.
The reformist faction in the Syro-Malabar Church, which has been waging a battle against the establishment for the past two years, has demanded a high-level inquiry into the incident. In a memorandum to Chief Minister E K Nayanar, they alleged that there was a plot to eliminate the archbishop, who is considered a sympathiser to their Indianisation cause.
Mar Jacob Thoomkuzhy is among the senior archbishops being considered for promotion as major archbishop, which is the supreme authority of the Church that was accorded independent status by Vatican in 1992. The post has been lying vacant since Cardinal Antony Padiyara's retirement on health grounds last year. The Church has been under the control of a caretaker administration headed by Archbishop Varkey Vithaythil.
Incidentally, the incident occurred close on the heels of the visit of Mar Jacob Thoomkuzhy to Rome on the summons of the Pope. There were speculations in the Church circles that the visit was connected with his promotion.
The reformist faction had alleged an attempt by a rival faction, the Chaldeans, to 'usurp' power in connivance with the Oriental Congregation in Rome. The Chaldeans, who have been trying to restore the eastern traditions and rituals in the Church, is headed by Changanacherry Archbishop Joseph Powathil, who is another contender for the top position.
Reformist leader Joseph Pulikkunnel told rediff.com that the failure by the authorities to report the matter to the police smacked off an attempt to hush it up. He said the laity, who were disturbed by the incident, had a right to know how the acid reached the vestry, and only a police investigation could bring out the facts.
Though Nayanar has ordered an investigation, it is yet to make much progress.
The reformists fear that the Church may use its influence to hush up the matter, as it had allegedly done in the case of Sister Abhaya, a nun from Kottayam. Though the Central Bureau of Investigation found that she was murdered, they sought the closure of the case expressing inability to nab the culprits.
The Thrissur superintendent of police said his force was helpless since the church authorities had no complaints about the incident. He said the authorities had clarified that the incident was the result of a mix-up, and had ruled out any attempt on the archbishop's life.
Joseph Pulikkunnel said that premature deaths of bishops have not been rare in the Church. The most glaring case was the death of Papal representative Archbishop Abraham Kattumana on the day he submitted a report to the Pope on granting autonomous status to the Church. The cause was reported as heart attack.
Cardinal Joseph Parecattil, Bishop Manguzhukkarry and Archbishop Joseph Kundukulam had similar premature deaths.
Though several speculations have circulated about the deaths, no inquiries were held in the absence of complaints from the authorities. But the reformists are determined to bring out the facts behind the recent incident.
"If the state police try to hush up the matter we will approach higher authorities," Joseph Pulikunnel said.