THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India (UCAN), July 1, 2006
Some recent cases involving Pentecostal pastors in Kerala state underscore concerns other Christians here have about neo-Christian sects.
On June 28, police in the southern state registered a case against three pastors accused of raping a minor girl. Five days earlier, a court sentenced a pastor and his son to jail and asked them to pay large fines in a case that involved the posting of pornographic pictures on the Internet.
On March 14, police registered a complaint against a pastor for allegedly sexually abusing 3-year-old orphans. The pastor, caretaker of an orphanage where 21 children were staying, fled.
Pastor T.S. Abraham, head of the Indian Pentecostal Church of God, says the controversies will not affect his group. But Babu Paul, a theologian of the Orthodox Church, views the cases as the results of ego conflicts and competition for funding among neo-Christian sects.
Pastor Abraham, 80, claims his Church is growing rapidly in Kerala and now has 300,000 members. Christians of various denominations form more than 19 percent of the 31.3 million people in the state where Christianity was introduced in India, by Saint Thomas the Apostle in 52 A.D., according to tradition. The state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, is 2,815 kilometers south of New Delhi.
Pastor Abraham's father, K.E. Abraham, pioneered the Pentecostal movement in India and founded the Indian Pentecostal Church in 1923. Now, Kerala alone has more than 200 sects, who have weaned members away from traditional Churches.
Paul acknowledges the Pentecostal groups are mushrooming in Kerala. "No doubt about it. But these Churches are individual-based and interpret the Bible in their own way," he told UCA News. According to him, the sects attract people since they "offer instant relief." He also said some groups give financial help to those joining them.
Comparing the sects and traditional Churches, Paul says the traditional Churches do not allow individuals to start separate groups. "But in Pentecostal Churches, if five members assemble at a particular place once a week, they call it a Church," and make rules to manage their group independently. He described most sects as "individual shows" that recruit members to show numerical strength.
"If a Church member finds faults with his leader, he will start another Church and become its head," explained Paul, a former civil servant.
Pastor Abraham and his daughter were the aggrieved parties in the case that produced the first cybercrime conviction in Kerala. The case goes back four years to when Pastor T.S. Balan, Pastor Abraham's estranged protege, and Pastor Balan's son Aneesh posted doctored "nude" pictures of Pastor Abraham and his daughter on the Internet. The duo also circulated these pictures to hundreds of e-mail users.
Pastor Abraham complained to police when his son residing in the United States alerted him about the pictures. The court sentenced Pastor Balan and his son each to seven years in jail and a 35,000-rupee (about US$760) fine.
R. Ramchandran Nair, who led the team that investigated the case, expressed satisfaction over the conviction. According to him, the police sought the help of computer experts to identify the Internet provider's location and produced 59 pieces of evidence in court. "It was a challenge for us, as we have never investigated cybercrime in the past," the police officer told UCA News.
Pastor Abraham thanked God for the verdict. "I was pained by the heinous crime," he said, adding that he did not want to talk about the merits of the case or the convicted pastor. He asserted the controversies "do not reflect our faith or affect the functioning of the Church."
Pastor Balan, a Hindu who converted to Christianity in 1987, has published several books and is a popular preacher among Pentecostal believers.
James Varghese of the Brethren Assembly, another sect, says the scandals involving pastors would certainly damage Christians' image in the state.
In the view of David Joseph, a Catholic businessman, the mushrooming of neo-Christian sects is creating "unhealthy competition among the preachers." He charges that many pastors create separate groups to attract overseas funds.
"Evangelization is in fact a flourishing industry in Kerala. There is no basic qualification to become a pastor," he told UCA News.