India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to the his supporters during a political event organised by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the GMIT College Grounds on March 25, 2023, in Davangere, India. / Credit: Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty Images

Thrissur, India, Oct 4, 2023 / 13:45 pm (CNA).

An elderly Catholic priest in India’s Kerala state was suspended from priestly duties for joining India’s ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party or Indian People’s Party), which is known for pursuing a Hindu nationalist agenda.

The BJP is the party of Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi. The priest’s action took place at a time of rising persecution of Christians in India. According to the United Christians Forum (UCF), in the first eight months of 2023, 525 incidents of violence against Christians have been reported in 23 states of India.

“There was no option but to act, as it has become a scandal to the faithful,” Bishop John Nellikunnel of the Diocese of Idukki told CNA about the Oct. 2 suspension of Father Kuriakose Mattam, vicar of St. Thomas Parish of Mankua.

“His action violated the canon law, which prohibits priests from joining political parties without permission,” Nellikunnel said.

Elaborating further, Nellikunnel noted: “It seems that Father Kuriakose, who is close to retirement [he will be 75 in six months], was misled into joining the BJP. As the news spread, the priest was also disturbed. So, he was moved out.”

Father Jins Karackattu, spokesperson for the diocese, told CNA that a couple of local Catholics who are actively associated with the BJP had “lured” the elderly priest into joining the BJP two weeks ago, promising him a quick repair of roads in the area.

When Idukki district BJP leaders made public on Oct. 2 the photos and videos of the elderly vicar of the remote parish “taking BJP membership” on the church premises, parishioners rushed to the church.

“As the news spread, Father Kuriakose was agitated and locked himself up. Diocesan officials rushed and shifted him to the retirement home for priests,” a local Catholic said.

“We welcome the action by the diocese. The BJP propaganda is embarrassing for the Christian community,” Father Jacob Palackappilly, deputy secretary general of Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council, told CNA.

“Their statement about the ‘entry of the Catholic priest to BJP’ is very funny. The party is trying to fool the Christians with such gimmicks. There should be no confusion as to the agenda of the BJP with Christians being harassed and persecuted under their rule in several states,” Palackappilly said. 

BJP leaders have of late made a push to reach out to Christians in Kerala. While Modi visited the Sacred Heart Cathedral in New Delhi on Easter, BJP leaders claimed to have visited 10,000 churches and Christian homes in Kerala offering “Easter greetings.” 

Kerala is home to nearly 7 million Christians who trace their faith to St. Thomas the Apostle, who landed on the Kerala coast in 52 A.D. 

The BJP is not represented among Kerala’s 20 seats in the national Parliament, nor in the 140-member Assembly of Kerala.

KS Aji, of the BJP, based in Idukki, posted on Facebook that the elderly priest joined the BJP after “observing the current situation in the country.”

Aji also shared the Indian Express report that included photos of himself with Father Mattam as he was joining the BJP wearing a party shawl on his neck.

News of the Catholic priest joining the BJP has gone national, with leading pro-BJP news outlets including the national TimesNow channel carrying the story “Catholic Priest in Kerala Suspended After Joining BJP.” 

“This incident shows how the BJP is trying desperately to get a foothold among the Christians,” KM Francis, president of Kerala Catholic Federation, told CNA.   

“With the bloodshed in Manipur exposing their anti-Christian agenda, BJP is exploring new tricks as the [national] election is forthcoming,” Francis noted.

The BJP heads both the federal government and state government in Manipur where ethnic Kuki Christians have been targeted in ethnic clashes with majority ethnic Meiteis. Nearly 200 have been killed, and over 60,000 Kukis refugees have fled, along with 10,000 Meiteis.

The priest’s public act is similar to one that took place in eastern West Bengal state in March 2021, when the BJP announced that a senior priest of the Kolkata Archdiocese, Father Rodney Borneo, would join its ranks publicly, shocking the minuscule Christian community in the state.