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MUMBAI, India – A cardinal who leads Indian’s Syro-Malabar Church has been cleared by his state government of charges of wrongdoing related to real estate deals estimated to have resulted in losses of around $10 million. The financial controversy led to protests from some of his own clergy and laity, and his temporary loss of administrative authority by Vatican edict in 2018.

Officials of the Kerala state government, where Cardinal Mar George Alencherry’s Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly is located, recently filed an affidavit with India’s Supreme Court asserting that nothing illegal took place with regard to the land deals.

The Syro-Malabar church is one of 22 Eastern churches in full communion with Rome, claiming a following of roughly 2.5 million in Kerala and 4.25 million worldwide.

Last year, a state court in Kerala ruled that Alencherry and others involved in the land sales should stand trial, a decision the 77-year-old prelate had appealed to the Supreme Court. In its affidavit, the government of Kerala said it had incorporated the results of a police investigation.

The controversy dates to 2016, when Alencherry decided to sell off a piece of land to repay a bank loan, which had been taken out to finance the construction of a medical college.

Groups calling themselves the “Save the Archdiocese Campaign” and “Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency,” which include both clergy and laity, claimed that Alencherry had bypassed the controls for such transactions established in canon law, and, in the process, sold off land at well below its market value.

Those protests led a decision by the Vatican in June 2018 to withdraw Alencherry’s administrative authority, appointing a temporary administrator to oversee archdiocese finances. The cardinal’s authority was restored by the Vatican a year later.

Last year, the Vatican’s Congregation for Eastern Churches approved a plan to sell off other plots of land to recover the losses resulting from the original transactions. That decision triggered additional protests from local clergy and laity, who insisted that the land belongs to them.

In the new affidavit, Kerala officials said that the decisions to buy and sell land were taken after holding consultations outlined in the Catholic Church’s own Code of Canon Law, as well as rules established by the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese.

Despite complaints that Alencherry had acted without consultation, the affidavit states that talks on the bank loan and land sales were held with three governing bodies of the church, including the archdiocesan finance council.

Minutes of those discussions, according to the affidavit, have been registered with the court.

Speaking to Crux, Father Paul Thelakat, a former spokesperson of the Syro Malabar Synod, the governing body of the church headed by Alencherry, said the affidavit raises questions as to why India’s income tax authority has levied a fine on the archdiocese, as well as why law enforcement authorities had pursued charges.

“The police and the Government of Kerala should have been a little more careful, lest some may suspect an unholy nexus,” Thelakat said.

However, one of the priests critical of Alencherry’s role in the transactions, Father Jose Vailikodath, told local media that the affidavit is a “political ploy” by the governing party in Kerala aimed at garnering Catholic votes.

“There are no two opinions on the fact that the affidavit submitted by the government is false and without any value,” Vailikodath said.

A lay activist in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese agreed.

“If the government thinks that it can garner votes on the basis of this action, it should remember that times have changed,” said a statement from Binu John, convenor of one of the lay groups critical of Alencherry.

The land deals have not been the only controversies to dog Alencherry’s tenure.

In 2019, police in Kerala charged a Catholic bishop with repeatedly raping a nun, though the bishop denied the allegations. Church members filed a petition against Alencherry accusing him of failing to act on the nun’s allegations.

Earlier this year, Alencherry was forced to lead Holy Week celebrations with police protection following a wave of protests over liturgical changes, including a decision to make uniform the practice of the priest facing the faithful at the beginning of Mass and then turning towards the alter after the offertory.

Some priests in Ernakulam-Angamaly objected, insisting that they’d been celebrating Mass facing the people for a half century, prompting Pope Francis to dispatch a letter ordering clergy to implement the changes.