A Catholic priest's refusal to bury a parishioner in a church cemetery because he died of AIDS has forced church leaders to moot guidelines that the clergy will be duty-bound to follow.
Officials of Kerala's Syro-Malabar Church said on Monday that the church's spiritual leader, Archbishop Varkey Vithayathil, would write to the clergy asking them to accord decent burials to AIDS victims.
The victim, a 38-year-old man identified as James, was a truck driver and belonged to the archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly's Elavoor parish, 30km north of Kochi.
Father George Payapilli objected to his burial in the church cemetery. Instead, James was buried on December 1 in a pit outside the cemetery, but inside the sprawling church complex. The priest also got a few other pits dug to ensure that all future AIDS victims were buried outside the cemetery.
But some parishioners were outraged. "It is highly discriminating that the church, which talks about love and charity, has accorded a cruel burial to a person who died of AIDS," C P Antony, one of the church members, told rediff.com
Antony and other members of the church petitioned Cardinal Vithayathil, who is also the major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church.
Cardinal Vithayathil was not available for comments, but church spokesperson Father Paul Thelakat said Father Payapilli had done "a grave wrong".
"We are sorry that it happened. The church leadership will now come out with written guidelines to ensure that similar incidents do not occur in the community," Father Thelakat told rediff.com
He said the church did not want AIDS patients to be ostracised in life or death.
Father Antony Punnassery, another church leader in the Ernakulam archdiocese, said the guidelines would be an attempt to educate the clergy on handling AIDS victims.
He said the guidelines would try to raise the awareness of the faithful on AIDS, instruct them how to help those living with the virus and how to treat them humanely. "The church will not allow any segregated cemetery for AIDS patients," the priest added.
Officials said the unusual incident would also be discussed during the general body meeting of the apex Catholic Bishops' Conference of India to be held in Kerala from January 7 to 14. To be attended by all the 149 Catholic bishops in India, the theme of the meeting will be 'Church and Social Communications'.
The church in India comprises Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara rites. The Latin follows Roman liturgy, introduced by European missioners in the 15th century, while the Kerala-based other two follow Oriental liturgies and customs, and trace their origins to Saint Thomas the Apostle.
The Syro-Malabar Church accounts for some 3.5 million of India's 16 million Catholics.