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Vatican court rejects appeal over Indian Church land deals

The Church’s highest judicial authority has rejected an appeal to reexamine issues surrounding land deals that provoked uproar among Indian Catholics. 

Cardinal George Alencherry, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church. Rahul Payyappilly via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

In a decree dated Jan. 31, the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura dismissed the appeal concerning the proposed sale of two properties and the restitution of land losses sustained by the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly.

Ernakulam-Angamaly is the pre-eminent see of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, the second-largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome. The archeparchy’s head is Cardinal George Alencherry, the leader of the Syro-Malabar Church.


Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, the apostolic nuncio to India, informed  Ernakulam-Angamaly’s apostolic administrator Archbishop Andrews Thazhath of the Apostolic Signatura’s decision in a letter dated April 3.

“As your Grace will see, the Supreme Tribunal, after carefully studying the case, has now decreed that ‘in matters already decided, let there be no reopening, and let this be informed to those concerned, with all the effect of law,’” Girelli wrote.

The decree is the latest twist in a long-running controversy over real estate transactions that lost the archeparchy in the southern Indian state of Kerala a reputed $10 million and led to proceedings in the country’s civil courts.

Critics have accused archeparchy officials of selling the land for far less than its estimated worth, and of mismanaging the Church’s assets at a time when the archeparchy was already struggling to pay back a large bank loan. 

The affair sparked outrage among the archeparchy’s priests, who demanded the removal of Cardinal Alencherry in a revolt known as the “Ernakulam priests’ rebellion.”

In June 2018, the Vatican appointed a temporary apostolic administrator who oversaw the archeparchy for a year. 

In August 2019, Pope Francis confirmed the election of Archbishop Antony Kariyil as the archiepiscopal vicar of Ernakulam-Angamaly, responsible for day-to-day administration.

Kariyil resigned in the midst of a liturgical crisis in the local Church in July 2022 and was succeeded by apostolic administrator Archbishop Thazhath.

Cardinal Alencherry, who has served as the Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church since 2011, has consistently denied any wrongdoing.

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According to an unsigned April 16 explanatory note circulating in the archeparchy, the Apostolic Signatura issued the decree in response to an appeal by local priests against a final decision on matters related to land sales issued in 2021 by the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, the Vatican department responsible for relations between Rome and the autonomous Syro-Malabar Church.

“That means, the observations and the decisions of the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches remain upheld without prejudice to the civil court procedure,” the note said.

In March, India’s Supreme Court rejected an attempt by Alencherry to quash seven criminal cases against him relating to land deals. The ruling increased the likelihood of the cardinal facing trial over the cases.

The explanatory note said that the Apostolic Signatura’s decree paved the way for Church authorities to sell plots of land in the small Keralan settlements of Kottappady and Devikulam for the price approved by the Syro-Malabar Church’s Permanent Synod, which consists of five bishops including Alencherry, who is the body’s president.

“It is hoped that this decree of the Supreme Tribunal of Signatura Apostolica will clarify many of the doubts of the faithful, since a lot of false propaganda is being spread with the intentions of tarnishing the image of the Syro- Malabar Church and the Major Archbishop in public,” the note concluded. 

The Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly is also at the center of an ongoing liturgical dispute that has been marked by street brawls, hunger strikes, the burning of pastoral letters, the immolation of cardinals’ effigies, and the storming of church sanctuaries.

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