New Delhi, December 14: The practice of mandatory confession followed by the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church has come under the judicial scanner with the Supreme Court Monday issuing notices to the Centre, Kerala and 11 Malankara Syrian church bodies on a petition challenging the religious practice.

Three men based in Kerala filed the petition claiming the practice was in violation of the right to privacy, which was declared a fundamental right by the top court in 2017.

A bench led by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde agreed to examine the plea after the petitioners’ lawyer, senior advocate Sanjay Parikh, submitted that the practice was leading to several problems, including blackmail of parishioners and the sexual exploitation of women, The Print reported.

Parikh said only the top court could hear the matter as it had in the past restrained the Kerala High Court from passing orders on issues related to churches.

The petitioners also challenged the practice of mandatory payment of money to the parish under the church’s 1934 constitution as being violative of the right to religion, guaranteed under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution.

According to the petitioners, the church constitution falls foul of fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. In their petition, the men reproduced sections 7, 8 10 and 11 of the church constitution to demonstrate the violation. Section 7 makes it compulsory for members of the Parish Assembly to confess upon turning 20. If they do not, their names are not included in the parish register, which results in them losing the right to vote in the Parish Assembly.

According to the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church’s religious practice, members are required to undergo “sacramental confession” before a priest to relieve themselves of sin. It is a condition precedent for fulfilling the temporal and spiritual needs of being a Christian and one who doesn’t do that is denied the benefit of services from the church, the petition stated.

The twin requirement to mandatorily confess and keep a “confession register” according to the church’s constitution has turned the practice into a “tool for exploiting men and women parishioners by Priests of respective church”.

“The compulsion to confess is a serious intrusion into the privacy of a person. The believers have been forced to remain meek and quiet out of fear of removal from parish membership,” the plea submitted.

While women are exploited sexually, men are blackmailed financially. “In some cases, it has been reported that a forced confession extracted out of a wife was not only used to exploit her sexually within threats of blackmail but was also used to blackmail and extort money from the husband as a price for keeping his wife’s confession a secret,” the petition claimed.

To support their allegations, the petitioners relied upon various news reports exposing the sexual exploitation of women, including nuns, through this religious practice.

According to them, the reported incidents are just the tip of the iceberg.

“Priests turning into predators is fast becoming an accepted social norm that is almost impossible for victims to overcome. Most victims, due to the sensitive nature of their confession, keep quiet as they fear social ostracism and sensationalism of the details of their exploitation across various news channels,” the petition stated.

The National Commission for Women (NCW) also made a “strong pitch” for abolition of the practice of confession and further made a strong recommendation to the Centre to abolish the practice of confession, the plea added.

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