‘Kerala Story’: Idukki Diocese screens the controversial film, Concerned Catholics condemn the decision calling it ‘un-Christian’

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By Our Correspondent

NEW DELHI – The screening of the controversial Islamophobic movie, ‘The Kerala Story’, by the Idukki Diocese in Kerala, under the Syro-Malabar Church, has sparked a major controversy with a section of Catholic Christians questioning the decision and the priests defending the move on the pretext of educating the catechism students about the “perils of Love Jihad”. A diocese is a district under the pastoral care of a Bishop in the Christian Church.

Ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the Church hierarchy in the southern state of Kerala has been accused of supporting the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is yet to have a Member of Parliament from the state. The BJP seems be banking on the Christians to open its account in India’s most educationally advanced state.

While the BJP has been friendly with Christians in Kerala, Christians have faced violence at the hands of communal Hindu groups in the northern states. The persecution of Christians and Muslims, both of whom are significant minority communities in India, has increased after the BJP formed the government at the Centre in 2014. A catechism is a doctrinal manual, often in the form of questions and answers, meant for students of Christianity.

‘The Kerala Story’, a Hindi film directed by Sudipto Sen in 2023, is regarded as Islamophobic as it is based on “Love Jihad,” a derogatory term used to describe Muslim boys feigning love to marry Christian and Hindu girls and convert them to Islam. The Kerala government and socio-political leaders have affirmed that the movie is not based on facts and aims to defame and belittle the state.

However, the Hindu organisations and the BJP have supported the movie, saying it has exposed the threat posed by Muslims in India. Wrongly publicised as a true story, the movie depicts the ordeal of three young women from Kerala after they fall in love with Muslim youths to end up in the custody of the Islamic State (IS). The movie falsely claimed that thousands of Hindu women from Kerala have been converted to fight for the Islamic State.

All the parishes in the Idukki Diocese screened the controversial movie on April 4, saying it was meant to create awareness on unmindful love among the catechism students. Father Jins Karackatt, Director of the Diocesan Media Commission, said one of the topics for the annual summer vacation camp was love, and the film was screened to highlight the dangers involved in different forms of love.

After Idukki, the Thamarassery Diocese of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is now arranging a screening of the movie on April 12. The Kerala Catholic Youth Movement unit of the Thamarassery Diocese has taken the initiative to screen the movie during the vacation classes for students, named ‘Suvisheshotsavam’.

The priest of the Church said the film would be screened for educational purposes, as a form of warning to children about some of the dangers and to be cautious when they fall in love. The Church’s controversial move has come after a political row broke out in Kerala following the telecast of the movie by the national broadcaster Doordarshan despite strident opposition from the Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF).

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Leader of the Opposition V.D. Satheesan have accused the Central Government of sanctioning the movie’s broadcast to stoke sectarian divisions and cause communal polarisation in Kerala with an eye on the Hindu votes in the Lok Sabha elections. Both the leaders appealed to the DD to desist from screening the deeply schismatic movie. The UDF and the LDF also moved the Election Commission of India against the film’s telecast.

The LDF and the UDF worry that the controversy over the broadcasting of the divisive film might take on a new level of hostility and focus the Lok Sabha campaign on communally divisive issues. The BJP had used the production of the movie as a contentious campaign tool in the 2023 Assembly elections in Karnataka, which the Congress won.

While the political observers in Kerala believe that the Christian clergy is playing with fire by propagating the communal and divisive agenda supported by the movie, Doordarshan’s decision to show the film has also generated a controversy. A large number of Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) activists attempted to storm the precincts of the Doordarshan Kendram in Thiruvananthapuram on April 5 morning demanding that the national broadcaster rescind its decision and apologise.

On the expected lines, the BJP has welcomed the screening of the Islamophobic movie by the Idukki Diocese. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the UDF opposed the move. BJP central zone president N. Hari said the diocese acted with a “sense of reality”. “The courageous decision of the Idukki Diocese to screen the movie is a major setback to the campaign by the LDF and the UDF, opposing the screening of the movie by Doordarshan,” said Hari.

Leader of the Opposition V.D. Satheesan said the diocese had made a bad decision. “It is a propaganda movie and does not depict reality. The movie aims to divide communities in Kerala. We have already submitted a letter against its screening by Doordarshan,” he said. CPI(M) State secretary M.V. Govindan said ‘The Kerala Story’ was a third-rate movie. “The party has opposed the screening of the movie by Doordarshan, but we cannot prevent individuals from watching the movie,” Satheesan said.

Meanwhile, a group of Catholic Christians, citing Pope Francis’s call to foster respect for diversity, commitment to Kerala, and the promotion of peace, have expressed grave concern over the Idukki Diocese’s screening of controversial movies, which is largely perceived to be portraying the Muslim community and Kerala as a whole in bad light.

The letter of protest against the decision of the diocese was signed, among others, by senior priest Paul Thelakat, former chief editor of Sathyadeepam, a widely circulated and well-received Catholic publication; Father Suresh Mathew, former chief editor of Indian Currents; John Dayal, former president of the Catholic Council of India and human rights activist Father Cedric Prakash. The other signatories include prominent lay people, religious leaders and priests.

They said that on the day Pope Francis sent out a call for peace and brotherhood, the Idukki Diocese screened ‘The Kerala Story’ for students of classes between X and XII as part of catechism classes. The spokesman for the diocese said the film was screened to raise awareness about ‘Love Jihad’. But the screening of the film “defies logic”, said the Catholic group.

“First of all, the movie is clearly a propaganda film created to further the Hindutva narrative trying to destroy the secular fabric of the country. Secondly, the film is replete with lies, factual inaccuracies and half-truths; so much so that the director of the movie publicly admitted falsehood and had to correct the figures given in the original curtain-raiser,” the group added.

The most important point is that the film goes against the teachings of the Church and the person and message of Jesus, they added. The screening of the film is a grave cause for concern because it sows seeds of hatred, intolerance, and prejudice among children instead of promoting peace, compassion and acceptance, which are the core values of Christianity.

The group also asked how the film was screened for children, while the Central Board of Film Certification had ‘A’ certified it. “Will the Idukki Diocese be prosecuted for screening the film for children?” the signatory to the protest letter asked.

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has emphasised the importance of strengthening and building good relations between Christians and Muslims during the holy month of Ramzan; the Diocese of Idukki, on the other hand, seems to have chosen to promote conflict and tension between the two communities. “Like in the time of Hitler, there are always those in authority in the Churches who wish to kowtow towards those who have political power in order to keep their own ‘little empires’ safe,” the group said.

While strongly condemning the insensitive and unchristian act of the Diocese of Idukki, the group earnestly urged all Church authorities to do all they could to promote inter-religious dialogue, reconciliation, fraternity, harmony and peace, remembering that our future as a country, is at stake. It said the movie was clearly a propaganda film created to further the Hindutva narrative that is trying to destroy the secular nature of the country.

In a very incisive message to the participants in the First Colloquium between the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, held in the Vatican on April 4, Pope Francis said, “We need to support each other in fostering harmony between religions, ethnic groups and cultures. In particular, I want to emphasise three aspects: respect for diversity, commitment to our common home and the promotion of peace.

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