The Mar Thoma Church dilemma, to register or not under the Societies Act

Of late, the Mar Thoma Syrian Church has been in the news over whether it needs to be registered under the Societies Act (SA) 1966 or if its registration under the Trustees Incorporation Act (TIA) 1952 is sufficient.

This issue has divided the church for the last 20 years. A firm decision by the government needs to be made on this contentious point.

An organisation – social, religious or commercial – can be registered under two acts or more, depending on its scope of activity. The TIA concerns only the properties of the church held under trust, with trustees appointed by Dr Joseph Mar Thoma, the head of the church in India who is also referred to as The Metropolitan.

Unlike locally constituted religious bodies, the Mar Thoma Church cannot avail itself of the freedom and protection of Article 11 of the Federal Constitution as it is an Indian-controlled church. This is one of the main causes of the various disputes and frictions in the church.

The disputes are not about the properties or the trust/trustees, but the administrative issues concerning the 2,000-plus members of the church spread across West Malaysia.

This has paralysed the church and, over the years, various programmes and activities have either ceased or received only minimal response. The church, known for its large number of who’s who in Malaysia, is now a pale shadow of its former lively and vibrant self. A section of the church – the senior citizens and youngsters – are distancing themselves from the church.

Usually, registering any house of worship or organisation under the SA is an easy affair. All that is needed is for the pro tem committee to submit its application to the RoS for approval.

However, in the case of the Mar Thoma Church, there is a group actively opposing the registration of the church under the SA for reasons known only to its followers.

Registration would bring a host of benefits and help settle administrative disputes locally without referring them to The Metropolitan in India – a crucial point missed by a section of the parishioners.

The initial attempt at registration earlier this year was rejected by the RoS, which cited ambiguous and doubtful reasons. The pro tem committee has appealed to Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin for a review of the decision and, if need be, a further judicial review of the case.

Very much like some of the parishioners, the RoS is missing the most relevant points of the need for registration. The TIA does not permit the church for the so-called “elaborate activities” that the TIA, it is claimed, provides. The church should confine itself to what is allowed by the TIA.

Even the church’s registration with the TIA is in jeopardy as the mandatory appointment of three trustees every two years has not been made since 2014, which could prompt the law minister to revoke the registration. This is an indication of the apathetic attitude of the powers that be. Most, if not all, of the church’s activities and programmes fall under the SA.

The RoS needs to understand, and so do the parishioners, that all present activities of the church – collection and disbursement of money, holding of AGMs or EGMs, election of office bearers, voters’ rights, the annual auditing of accounts, recruitment of priests from India, collection of funds for relief efforts locally and overseas – are beyond the scope of the TIA.

Presently, the church cannot purchase property under its name but must seek other means. Registration would enable the church re-building plans to be rightfully approved by the local authorities. Only the SA sanctions these activities, and more.

Additionally, yearly AGMs are delayed and sometimes not held for one or two years. The RoS would not allow these kinds of delays, in the interest of good governance.

The church has also set up a collective administrative body known as the Malaysian Zone, which was originally formed to subsidise smaller parishes due to the demographic changes after the 1980s. Over the last few years, the Malaysian Zone was reformed. It does not assist parishes anymore, but only collects “administrative fees” from them.

Many members are dismayed at this change of policy as they feel that it is their Christian duty to help the smaller parishes that are unable to sustain themselves. There is no transparency or accountability in the Malaysian Zone, which has in its coffers millions of ringgit.

The zonal assembly meetings that sanction expenditure and disbursements are not regularly held. The church has also set up various mission centres for evangelising purposes, which do not come under the scope and ambit of TIA. From 2013 to 2016, no zonal assembly meeting was held, and zonal accounts were not approved locally but by the Episcopal Synod (Bishops’ Council) in India, contrary to normal practice and further fuelling resentment at such arbitrariness and lack of transparency.

The church has exploited and taken full advantage of its registration under TIA because the government authorities have been too lenient, or have closed an eye to the activities of the church which the church claims are allowed under TIA.

No government authority has closely scrutinised the activities of the church, whether they fall under the scope of TIA or SA.

A religious group or house of worship may not have to register if its activities are limited, which is not the case of the Mar Thoma Church. The church would very much want to maintain the status quo, as it will not be held accountable locally but would be free to do what it wants.

However, there are a large number of progressive parishioners who strongly feel that legalising and widening the church activities under the SA would transform the church to keep pace with the times and initiate new programmes and activities that could bring back its members. First and foremost would be the re-building of the Kuala Lumpur church in Jalan St Thomas, Ipoh Road. The church has seen better times and is now in a dilapidated condition, reflecting the inertia among its members.

The parishioners are helpless, and hope that the government will allow the appeal to the home minister for the church’s registration under the SA. The appeal was made with pure intentions from law-abiding members who wish to ensure that all of the church’s activities are permitted and sanctioned by law. It is crucial for the government to aid loyal and law-abiding citizens, to instil confidence and adherence to its laws.

The church is not a mere collection of land and buildings as defined under the TIA. It comprises members who have democratic rights, privileges, duties and responsibilities that are better protected by the SA.

Since the members are complaining about the church, the government needs to act instead of simply washing its hands of the problem by rejecting the application for registration.

The members feel that it is only with the oversight of the RoS that matters can be set right. There have been many instances of maladministration and mismanagement of funds in the various parishes of the church, leading to disputes and disagreements.

Disputes are referred to The Metropolitan for his attention and decision, which in most cases are biased, delayed or indecisive. Must Malaysian parishioners bear with this 62 years after Merdeka? Is it conscionable for a church member to report these disputes to the police, MACC or immigration authorities?

If the church were registered under the SA, these matters of mismanagement could be referred to the RoS, which is a better complaints regulation mechanism. There is no problem-solving mechanism for church members under the TIA, which is the main reason why registration under the SA is being sought.

The parishioners are helpless over the arbitrary decisions by the authorities in India, one of which about two years ago was to hike the salaries of priests without any consultation or feedback from the Malaysian parishioners. The big salary increment has bankrupted the smaller parishes, which may have to close down if the salaries are not revised.

Parishioners, even office bearers, do not get to know the terms of appointment or details of employment contracts of priests as there is no transparency in the matter. After a few months, a directive comes from The Metropolitan, asking the church to pay a lump sum for arrears. This is in total contravention of Malaysian labour and employment laws.

The Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM) should also be taken to task as it endorses requests by the Mar Thoma Church without scrutinising whether such activity is sanctioned by the TIA. CCM should desist if there is ambiguity and doubt instead of blindly following a “practice” of endorsements.

In the aftermath of the Seafield temple riots, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad said all houses of worship must be registered so that they can be held legally responsible, and to ensure that the government will be in control of the situation especially with religious militancy and extremism on the rise.

Many threats have been made against houses of worship. Presently, houses of worship are registered under various categories. Some are not registered at all. This is unhealthy. The government must ensure that all houses of worship are registered under the SA (with amendments catering to religious bodies with input from MCCBCHST) so they can avail themselves of government allocations and the protection and remedies provided by the RoS.

The SA is a friendly act, and de-registration is a matter of last resort. It would be better if RoS offices nationwide had a more multiracial staff. Freedom of religion is good but abusing this privilege must be prevented.

With the present situation in the country, it is time the government looked keenly at religious issues including registration to prevent disaffection and disappointment.

The government would be doing the Mar Thoma Church a great favour by allowing its registration under the SA to ensure good governance, unity and harmony in the church.

Alternatively, members would be only too happy if the church authorities themselves opted for registration to end the impasse.

There is a consensus in the Episcopal Synod in Kerala, India, that the church can be registered under the SA if the Malaysian government makes it compulsory.

The Episcopal Synod needs to be aware that the 1850s reformist spirit of the Mar Thoma Church is still an inspiration to its members in Malaysia, who will work tirelessly for successful registration despite the threat of excommunication. Registration under the SA should be allowed if church members want it, and if the church’s scope of activity call for it.

Thomas Varky is a member of the KL St Thomas Mar Thoma Church.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.