A judge in the Indian state of Kerala ruled Wednesday that Cardinal George Alencherry, facing seven criminal charges, must attend a court hearing related to alleged irregularities in the sale of Church property.
Kerala High Court Justice Ziyad Rahman A.A. dismissed a petition on Nov. 9 from the leader of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church to be exempted from appearing in person at a magistrates’ court in Ernakulam.
Indian media reported that the 77-year-old cardinal had asked not to appear in person due to his age, health issues, and Church duties.
“Irrespective of his position, he is just an accused before the court of law, who is not entitled to claim any special privilege and is required to face the proceedings just like any other citizen,” the court said, according to The Hindu newspaper.
The cardinal and 23 other accused are due to appear before the magistrates’ court on Nov. 23, Asianet News reported.
The cardinal has always maintained his innocence and the Kerala state government said in July that it believed the sales took place after proper consultation.
The Syro-Malabar Church is the second-largest of the 23 autonomous Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
Alencherry, who has led the Church since 2011, is facing seven criminal cases connected to deals between 2013 and 2018 that reputedly lost his see, the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, $10 million.
The Kerala High Court reportedly also said that India’s Criminal Procedure Code treated ordinary citizens and “persons holding superior positions in their religious, political, social, or other institutions” the same way.
“Equality before the law, the laudable principle enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution of India, is not confined in its application only in cases where one seeks to enforce his rights,” it said.
“It is equally applicable when a person is proceeded against for violating the law or for committing an offense, and no preferential treatment can be claimed by anyone for any reason whatsoever, unless the statute contemplates such privilege.”
But the High Court added that the cardinal’s exemption request could be considered by the Judicial First Class Magistrate Court in Kakkanad after his first appearance before the court.
The Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly is also at the center of a ferocious dispute over changes to the Syro-Malabar Church’s liturgy. The majority of clergy have refused to adopt a new uniform mode of celebrating the Eucharistic liturgy, known as the Holy Qurbana.
The uniform mode was introduced in 1999 as a compromise between those who favored the liturgy celebrated ad orientem and those who preferred it versus populum. Under the “50:50 formula,” priests face the congregation during the Liturgy of the Word but turn east for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Clergy have reportedly warned the archdiocese’s apostolic administrator Archbishop Andrews Thazhath that there will be “more intense agitation” if they are not permitted to continue facing the people throughout the Eucharistic liturgy after Nov. 27.
Archbishop Thazhath issued a circular letter in September asking parishes in Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese to move to the uniform liturgy. Lay people publicly burned the letter.