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An archbishop’s spiritual factory

While carrying out its drive against fake godmen and street-side spirituality retailers, investigating agencies in Kerala stumbled...

Shaju Philip Thiruvananthapuram |
June 17, 2008 10:24:36 pm

While carrying out its drive against fake godmen and street-side spirituality retailers, investigating agencies in Kerala stumbled on the empire of Kerala-based evangelist and self-consecrated archbishop Dr K.P. Yohannan.

Last week, Kerala Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan had revealed that Believers’ Church, founded by Yohannan, had received foreign remittances of Rs 1,040 crore in the last 18 years. “The state will seek a probe by a Central agency to look into the foreign funds Yohannan received,” he said.

Yohannan has been a Pentecostal follower and president of Gospel for Asia (GFA), a group set up in the early eighties to promote biblical teachings. Yohannan’s highly spirited preaching won him lakhs of followers across the world. Athmeeya Yathra, one of the dozen trusts Yohannan set up, has been broadcasting religious radio programmes. Yohannan’s GFA has 54 Bible colleges in various countries, where over 8,000 missionaries train to spread the word of Christ. The GFA Biblical Seminary near Thiruvalla houses students from 31 different evangelical denominations. His GFA had faced the wrath of Hindu organisations several times in the past, over forced conversions.

But Yohannan’s real tryst with controversy began after he set up Believers’ Church about eight years ago at Thiruvalla, the NRI town in Pathanamthitta district. It was then that this preacher decided he was cut for higher things in life. He voluntarily donned the garb of a bishop and hired the service of K.J. Samuel, a bishop of a sister church. In normal course, only a priest can become a bishop and his action stunned his community. Both the Church of South India and the Church of North India pulled up their bishops for conducting the installation ceremony, the nature of which had been unprecedented in Christian circles. But Yohannan wouldn’t stop at that. He later upgraded his post to that of an archbishop and appointed six other junior bishops.

“Prayer and money makes Believers’ Church. Yohannan has become an archbishop by bypassing the traditional route,” said Kerala Congress(S) MLA P.C. George.

Archbishop Yohannan now heads over a dozen charitable trusts. A major chunk of Yohannan’s followers are outside his home state, particularly in the northeast. Believers’ Church claims a flock of 15 lakh in India, with Kerala accounting for a mere 15,000. Like other churches, Yohannan’s church also runs a posh school, housing 1,800 students.

Yohannan’s real estate interest came to the fore in 2005 when Believers’ Church purchased 2,263 acres of rubber estate from Harrison Malayalam Limited for Rs 63 crore. He also owned Cheruvally estate, one of the best-managed rubber estates in Kerala. Besides, his church owns several tracts of land, paddy fields and islands with tourism potential in various parts of central Kerala. The land tracts were purchased on behalf of the trusts Yohannan headed. Nobody was under any illusion that the rubber estate and paddy fields were meant for sowing the seeds of gospel.

Yohannan got into many more controversies, among them over the alleged misuse of a tsunami rehabilitation fund. But political parties have rarely bothered to look into the transactions of the Church.

Despite the police probe and controversies, Yohannan’s team at Thiruvalla remains unfazed. According to Church sources, the self-styled archbishop is engaged in relief activities in the cyclone-hit Myanmar.

“We welcome any kind of investigation. Our accounts are transparent,” said Jacob Pothan, central administrative officer of Believers Church. “It is true that the Church has received Rs 1,040 crore since 1990. But only 144 crore has been diverted for real estate dealings in Kerala. The rest has gone into charity,” said Pothan, who took a voluntary retirement from the Rubber Board to join Yohannan’s spiritual company.

Pothan said the Church carries out rehabilitation projects for poor children, Dalits and backward communities, irrespective of their religious moorings. “We also financially support over 10,000 families. However, conversion has never been on our agenda,” Pothan claimed. He justified the Church’s real estate investments, saying such projects have to be seen as income-generating ventures to carry out charity work.

DGP (Intelligence) Jacob Punoose told The Indian Express that a state-level probe would be held into the funds that Believers’ Church got. “Our investigation has revealed that the church maintains accounts about the money that had flowed into its kitty. However, they have to probe where the money has been deployed,” Punoose said.

Besides, the State Revenue Department has initiated a probe into land dealings by the Church. “The Government and media have been trying to tarnish and destroy a nation-building organisation,” said Pothan.

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