After reports an unrecognised church trust has signed an agreement with a builder to sell Mazgaon's St Peter's Church and school's land rights to a builder without the approval of the church community, Protestant Christians have planned an online petition and signature campaign across the country to protect their church properties.
Emergency meeting held to plan campaign against sale
At a meeting held on November 14 at St Andrew’s Marathi Church, Agripada, community members gathered for an ‘emergency meeting’ to plan a campaign to save church properties that are being sold without the approval of church members. Among the denominations affected by the alleged land scam are the Church of North India, a counterpart of the Anglican Church, and the Methodist Church.
People who took part in the meeting said that the churches are witnessing a land scam where corrupt church officials and trustees, many of them belonging to trusts unrecognised by the Charity Commissioner, which has jurisdiction over public trusts, were on a ‘property selling spree’. According to them, properties that are in danger include Wilson High School, Mumbai, St Peter's School, Robert Money School, Grant Road, All Saints Church, Malabar Hill, and other properties in Mumbai, Maharashtra, and India.
In case of the St Peter’s Church and school, a group of people organised as the Bombay Diocesan Trust Association, which is yet to be recognised by the Charity Commissioner, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with a builder for selling the school land’s undeveloped building potential, called Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) for Rs 11 crores.
Community groups have opposed the deal, saying that the TDR benefits should be used for social projects benefitting the community, and not sold to outsiders. “We the likeminded people from various denominations and churches are unitedly coming together to protect our holy church and institution properties from being illegally sold, leased, or alienated, with a conclusive aim to put an end to such illegal and corrupt practices followed by the trust,” said Cyril Dara, church activist and member of the Christian Reform United People Association (CRUPA). “The one-point agenda will be to protect and safeguard our holy church and institutional lands with strong criminal actions against the persons involved.”
Want church property to be used for benefit of members: Community
Community leaders said that they want church properties to be used for the benefit of members. For instance, in the case of Robert Money School, Grant Road, where the school property has been handed over by the Bombay High Court to Court Receivers after a dispute with builders over the use of the school premises and land, the community wants to use the site for the use of underprivileged children. “Every year we face the same problem. Corrupt church members are selling places that are meant for prayers. Religious leaders must be of good character. We have had bishops who have been thrown out for corruption, only to be reinstated again,” said Sukhanand Sabde, a former senior police officer who was present at the meeting. “This was the first meeting and we will find out ways to stop Christian religious properties from being sold.”
"The fight and the team of protecting church properties will be taken to the national level, where all like-minded people through the country will meet in Delhi and fight collectively," said Dara.
Church properties in danger:
The CNI is one of the two Indian counterparts of the Church of England – the other the Church of South India. The denomination is smaller than the Roman Catholic Church but has several Mumbai landmarks like the St Thomas Cathedral, Afghan Church (officially the St John the Evangelist Church), and Christ Church, Byculla. Most churches in the cantonments, hill stations, and railway towns are owned by the group. These properties are now prime land. Community members have complained that church land was been sold illegally by trusts. According to CRUPA, 70% of their churches have lost land assets in unscrupulous deals.
CNI’s Mumbai properties in dispute:
Afghan Church (St John Evangelist Church, Colaba).
An FIR was registered at Cuffe Parade police station in January 2008 about an illegal deal to sell land around the landmark church. The trial is underway at the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Esplanade Court. On June 28, 2023, the court started recording the evidence of the complainant in the case. The matter for recording of evidence has been adjourned to December 27. There were also complaints by the defence ministry that the church was built on land leased by them to the church. The defence department refused to give permission to sell the land.
Robert Money School, Grant Road
The property was handed over to the Bombay High Court Receiver after a dispute over the proposed construction of an international school in the old school premises. The dispute is still being heard by the Bombay High Court. A school trust had signed an agreement with the BDTA to run an international school in the premises, but the project has been stalled after a group of people claiming to be the real BDTA, challenged the deal. The trust running the school is paying rent of Rs 33 lakhs per month to the Bombay High Court during the pendency of the dispute.