Monday, June 01, 2009

The Church land controversy

Are we God-fearing in what we do

“For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me. Then the righteous will answer him, saying, Lord, when did we do these things for you? And the Lord shall answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, In as much as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.”(Mathew 25:34-40)

A recent report in the mainstream media highlighting the plight of the residents of a century-old kampong in the premises of the St.Francis Xavier Church in Penang was rather disturbing. It also questioned the controversial sale of the church land and the eviction of the residents, mainly elderly people, who have been there all these years. According to the report one of the houses was already demolished by a developer but fortunately further demolition was stopped by the local council.

This inconsiderate action has earned the wreath of the Pakatan Penang state government which has urged the bishop of Penang to publicly reveal the Catholic Church’s plans, if any, for the development of the church land that has been gazetted as a heritage site by Unesco.
In an encouraging move, Bishop Antony Selvanayagam of Penang has strongly refuted the report in the press. He dismissed as ‘absolute nonsense’ the claims that the diocese is planning to sell a portion of its land to the Cititel Hotel for development. According to him the land on the grounds of the St Francis Xavier Church has been earmarked for religious, charitable and cultural purposes.

He did not elaborate what those religious, charitable and cultural purposes were. If only he did his credibility would be greatly enhanced. He must also reveal the truth regarding the forced eviction of the residents which is seen by the lay public as being high-handed and cruel that goes against the basic teachings of the Church.

Evicting residents for the purpose of development is not wrong but it must be done in an amicable manner based on the provisions of the law with regards to compensation and full with respect for the human rights of those affected by the eviction. Being the people of God there must be the element of love and forbearance for those being evicted as these form the basic teachings of Christ that must be upheld at all times and at all costs.

The bishop, I am sure, has his own valid reasons in wanting to evacuate the residents from the church premises. This must be respected but since the matter has been highlighted in the press it is only proper that he make the church’s plans known to the public by replying to the allegations in the press which may be unfounded and even mischievous. This would help to dispel the wrong perception of the church in the minds of all Malaysians, especially from other faiths.

While the bishop’s response in the Herald is encouraging, he must also provide clarification in the mainstream media that carried the report. That is the only way to correct the tarnished the charitable image of our church among members of the other faiths. This is particularly important at a time when we are in the midst of a legal suite against the government over the use of the name to address God.

This land fiasco has been highlighted not just by the press but taken up by our own bloggers like Anil Netto, Charles Hector and others who seem to insinuate that the church has handled the land issue in a high-handed and inconsiderate manner with little or no compassion which is unbecoming of a spiritual institution. It is disturbing that many readers have passed very unpleasant comments in their blog postings.

This is not the first controversial land deal involving the Catholic Church and the people are becoming increasingly more suspicious of the involvement of the church hierarchy in such commercial deals leaving little or no time for the pastoral care of their parishioners that is deplorable state in many parishes.

It is time to get to the truth of this land controversy to put things right and correct the wrong perception of our church among members of the public. In this era of sophisticated and enhanced telecommunications and internet the truth cannot be suppressed for long.Moreover there is no reason to fear the truth as Christ will always be on its side.

Dr.Chris Anthony

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