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Nuncio to India and his address in Syro Malabar Catholic Synod and Diplomatic Obligations

Updated: Aug 19, 2021

Special legal correspondent

Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, Indian Nuncio. Photo credit to public domain.


Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli’s, Apstolic Nuncio to India, address to the XXIX Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church made headlines in Kerala, India. Almost all the newspapers and news channels reported a distorted summary issued by the Syro-Malabar Media Commission. The news reports mentioned only a part of his speech dealing with uniformity in celebration of Holy Mass. But a careful reading of the text shows that the Nuncio might have violated diplomatic norms and obligations under international law while directing the Synod to sell certain land for the restitution of losses incurred by Major Archbishop of the Ernakulam- Angamaly Major Archdiocese.

The text of the speech, which is freely available on many social media sites, shows that he spoke about the controversial land deal in the Syro-Malabar Church and called for implementation of the directives of the Congregation of the Eastern Churches. The relevant portion of his speech is quoted below:

Alas, over these past years, the inner peace of your beloved Church has been wounded, and I know that you long – indeed, we all long – for healing and reconciliation. I do not wish to dwell on the specific details of the land deal issue, which are known all-too-well to those here present. The Congregation for the Eastern Churches, which has explicitly endorsed the Permanent Synod’s proposal regarding the sale of land, wishes to see these provisions duly implemented (cf. N. 26/2021 of 21 June 2021, Card. Sandri to Archbishop Kariyil).


The directive that the Nuncio is referring to is the restitution for the losses incurred by Ernakulam – Angamaly Major Archdiocese in the controversial land deals of the Major Archbishop Cardinal George Alenchery. These deals were done in complete disregard of the laws of the land and canon law. As per the Directive, restitution must be achieved by selling a piece of land belonging to the Ernakulam-Angamaly Major Archdiocese. The Nuncio by calling for an implementation of the directive might have violated national as well as international law relating to diplomatic relations.


The Kerala High Court on 12 August 2021 dismissed a batch of petitions filed by Cardinal George Alenchery against initiation of criminal proceedings in relation to the land deals. The judgment dismissing the batch of petitions has far reaching consequences for the Catholic Church in India. It is beyond the scope of this article whether Cardinal George Alenchery should have resigned in the wake of the judgement. But one thing is sure that if it was a political leader against whom High Court had found prima facie criminal wrongdoing, he would have either resigned or booted out of his position. The Major Archbishop by clinging to his position and the reiteration by the Nuncio that “In this regard, please note that restitution is not asked of the Major Archbishop personally, but rather in his official capacity” speaks volumes of the moral compass of the Church.


Coming back to the High Court verdict (Cardinal Mar George Alenchery v. State of Kerala, available at: https://hckinfo.kerala.gov.in/digicourt/orders/2019/203700089362019_5.pdf), the Court made it very clear that alienation (sale) of church property is governed by the general law of the land and not by Canon Law. As per the Court, Canon Law has precedence only in matters relating to spiritual, ecclesiastical, and temporal affairs of the Church. The Court rules that the property held by the Major Archdiocese is an ‘implied public trust’ governed by Section 92 of the Code Civil Procedure. Section 92 imposes restrictions on the sale of such property including the requirement of obtaining a decree from a civil court. It is in this background that the speech of the Nuncio must be examined. Vatican’s directive to sell certain land in light of the High Court decision is against the law of the land. It is that directive that the Nuncio has directed the Synod to implement.


Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Head of the congregation for Oriental churches/ Photo Credit to public domain.


The Apostolic Nunciature in India and the Nuncio works under domestic and international law relating to diplomatic privileges. Both India and the Holy See are parties to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, 1961. This Convention grants immunities to diplomats from criminal and civil jurisdictions of the receiving State. (However, the sending state may waive such immunity. This rare step was taken by Vatican in 2019 in relation to its French Nuncio. Archbishop Luigi Ventura had to face a criminal trial in France on charges of sexual assault.) These immunities come with certain obligations on the part of the Diplomat. Article 41 (1) of the Convention states: “Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State. They also have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.”

It seems that the Nuncio has clearly gone against this provision. As per the Kerala High Court decision, alienation of land is not within the purview of ‘spiritual, ecclesiastical or temporal’ affairs of the Church. It is purely an internal affair governed by the secular laws of the land. He may have asked the Synod to violate the law of the land. It is understandable that Congregation for the Eastern Churches does not have much respect for India or its culture. Going by its actions, for the Congregation, ‘East’ begins and ends with West Asia. But at least the diplomats of the Holy See should have accorded due respect for the laws of this land. The Vatican that waives immunity to rightly assuage the public outrage in a European country, should at least abide by the minimal obligations imposed by international law. Such respect assumes great significance in the light of recent call by a prominent BJP leader to ‘scrap diplomatic relations with the Vatican’. (https://www.republicworld.com/india-news/politics/scrap-all-ties-with-the-vatican-and-close-its-embassy-says-dr-subramanian-swamy-to-pm-modi-heres-why.html)

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