MUMBAI, India – Days after a local Catholic diocese screened the controversial movie “The Kerala Story”, a Church youth movement has decided to spread it to other dioceses in the Syro-Malabar Church in India.

The movie depicts the story of four women from Kerala, a state in southern India, converting to Islam and joining the Islamic State, with the filmmakers claiming that thousands of women from the state had fallen to this.

The film had faced several court cases ahead of its release in May 2023. Some say that it is a cautionary tale on so-called “Love Jihad”, where Muslim men allegedly seduce non-Muslim women in order to convert them. Others contend that it’s a Hindu nationalist fiction and that the Church should be more concerned about the persecution of its faithful in several parts of India.

The movie was first screened in the Idukki diocese on April 4 for students attending a summer catechism program and was also scheduled to be screened in gatherings and family meetings by the Kerala Catholic Youth Movement (KCYM), a youth organisation of the Syro-Malabar Church in the dioceses of Muslim-dominated Thalassery and Thamarassery.

Kerala has 6.1 million Christians – over 18 percent of the population of the southern state – and 60 percent of them are Catholic, divided into Latin, Syro-Malabar, and Syro-Malankara rite jurisdictions.

Kerala’s Catholic Church is highly influential throughout India – where the national percentage of Christians is only 2.3 percent – since many priests and religious in other parts of the country come from the state. Muslims make up 27 percent of the state’s population.

The Thalassery archdiocese distanced itself from the announcement by KCYM that it would screen the movie at the parish hall. The archdiocese said it has not taken any decision to screen the movie in churches.

The archdiocese said it does not want to create discord between various communities, though it would want people to remain vigilant against “love traps.”

A day after the screening of the film in Idukki diocese – without referring to the film – the Commission for Social Harmony and Vigilance, under the KCBC, came out with a statement saying that terrorism and betrayals in the name of romantic relationships are a reality of the time, and the Church used to give cautionary directives accepting this fact.

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The conspicuous moves by some vested interests, taking advantage of the loopholes and benefits of the law, have been exposed through that, the Commission said.

In a Facebook post, the Commission accused the authorities of doing nothing, even though it was pointed out several times about the girls being cheated and misusing the Special Marriage Act.

“Under such circumstances when administrations continue to ignore such issues and the media conceal the facts, the Church comes up with awareness for the faithful. There is no need for anyone to get annoyed or misunderstand,” the Commission added.

It said the church leadership would definitely go ahead with constant awareness drives against social evils to prevent youngsters from falling into any trap.

The reaction of the KCBC’s Commission for Social Harmony and Vigilance comes amidst opposition of various political leaders, including Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, to the screening of the controversial film by Idukki Diocese.

Vijayan slammed the film as “against the cultural ethos of the state.”

“The film is being screened with a particular agenda. Canards are being spread to insult the state. No one should fall in the trap of the RSS [the main Hindu nationalist organization], which sees Communists and minorities as its enemies. They want to eliminate Christians. We have seen it in Manipur,” he said without mentioning the Church itself.

The Leader of the Opposition, V.D. Satheesan, said the movie had nothing to do with reality.

“Kerala has no such issue. It is a deliberate attempt to denigrate the state.”

Father Jacob Vellakkamkudy, director of the KCYM pf the Thamarassery diocese, said several girls from Kerala have been trapped in love and recruited by the Islamic State.

“The movie’s screening is not against Muslims … In recent years, we have rescued many women from the traps of love jihad,” he said.

The national ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is trying to gain a foothold in Kerala’s state government , and has “love jihad” as a pet plank, has hailed the Church’s move.

Father Antony Vadakkekara, the Spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church, told Crux India’s Censor Board has given the permission for “The Kerala Story” to be screened all across the country.

“Recently, from April 2-4, for three days, the Eparchy of Idukki, belonging to the Syro-Malabar Church had a special summer coaching, as we have every year, for the students belonging to 10th, 11th and 12th Standards,” he said.

“Before that there was a booklet prepared for them with a very important theme called ‘LOVE’, in which we have given them the understanding and conscientized the children that there are possibilities of wrong love affairs to get you into troublesome and problematic experiences later – therefore you need to be aware of it. That was the intention of the conscientization that was given,” the priest continued.

“As part of their work during the catechism classes, ‘The Kerala Story’ was screened for them just to understand the theme of the film, that there are people who are getting into unnecessary love affairs and finally they end up in disappointment. To conscientize them and make them aware, the Church has done this,” Vadakkekara said.

He added it has been made as a controversial issue “by the media.”

“I do not know if there is anybody who is having a vested interest in this – either political parties or any other communities. Anyway, the Church is not a party to any of these groups or political parties, but we have a very clear intention to educate our children and also to conscientize our people who come to the Church. This is the only intention we had in the matter,” the priest told Crux.

Vadakkekara noted the Indian Constitution gives protection against exploitation.

“Therefore, our teenagers and youngsters should understand that we need protection against exploitation, especially in this regard, against failed and forced love affairs which are leading them into any kind of problems. That was the intention of the Eparchy of Idukki, the catechism department, when they have given this particular theme for the study on this matter,” the priest said.

“At this moment let me tell you, since it is the [national] election time, I think some people want to deviate from the real problems that the people are facing. The Church is very much concerned about the problems of the people,” he said.

“The problems like the wild animal attacks; the farmers facing problems because they do not get sufficient price for their farm produce; and there are problems including Manipur, where the Christians are facing problems where Churches are being burnt, Christians are being killed and beaten and Holy statues of Jesus and Mother Mary are being thrown out and broken and also where people are starving to death and the problems with the ration shop,” Vadakkekara told Crux.

“There are people not getting sufficient money which the government used to give them every month; also the uncontrolled campus problems in schools and colleges and also qualified people not getting jobs; people of Kerala making a mass exodus to Western countries et cetera. We need to know the constitution of India which guarantees democracy and also the co-existence of every religion together need to be protected,” the priest added.

He said individual freedom and the freedom of the person needs to be protected.

“The minority community should have the protection for their rights and history needs to remain the same and there should not be any deviation from the historical facts and things like that. These are certain issues faced by the people of Kerala and India,” he said.

Therefore, we want the media to look into such things and the peoples’ concerns should not be forgotten for such kind of unnecessary controversies like the screening of ‘The Kerala story’. I request that we need to stop all such kinds of controversies,” Vadakkekara told Crux.