New Delhi: The Roman Catholic church in Kerala is asking Christians not to vote for atheists - a reference to the state's ruling Marxists - in the general elections, saying they are trying to destroy faith.
While the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which leads the Left government in the state, says the allegations are unfair and that it has always tried to protect minorities, the church is far from convinced.
The Kerala Catholic Bishop Council (KCBC) has prepared a pastoral letter, which will be read out during mass on Sunday, urging the laity not to vote for those preaching atheism and indulging in violence in the April 16 Lok Sabha elections in the state.
"The Marxist government is questioning the very existence of the church itself. They propagate atheism," said Philip Njaralakattu, a key member in Kerala's Inter-Church Council and top priest in the Palai diocese.
"They are hatching a conspiracy against the church. They see the church as a stumbling block to setting up permanent Marxist rule in the state. Their aim is to divide the church."
Thomas Issac, the Kerala finance minister and CPI-M central committee member, rejected the church's allegations and said the party and the government were willing to discuss and sort out the issues.
"We are not going to interfere in the affairs of the church. There are issues. We are ready to discuss the issues and sort them out. We will wait till the church comes to that point," Issac told IANS on telephone from Alappuzha.
This is not the first time the church has upped the ante against the Marxists.
Kerala's first government, led by Communist leader E.M.S. Namboodiripad, was dismissed in 1959 by the central government following protests of the Nair Service Society (NSS) and the Roman Catholic church, two fronts known for their anti-Marxist stand.
The EMS government's decision to introduce the Education Bill had provoked these two influential communities to launch what they called "a liberation struggle".
While Issac said the present circumstances were not a situation for "a second liberation struggle" in the state, Njaralakkattu did not dismiss the possibility.
"People are upset over the policies and programmes of the Marxist government. They are preparing ground for a second liberation struggle," said Njaralakattu.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) also said the church in Kerala is united in its fight against forces propagating atheism and using violence.
"We are clearly united against any organisation teaching atheism and the use of violence for political and social purposes," said Rev Babu Joseph, CBCI spokesman.
"Political parties and organisations should not impede the right to religious freedom, which is a fundamental right," he said.
The CPI-M central leadership is unhappy over the church's allegations, saying the Left had always tried to protect the rights of minority communites, including Christians.
CPI-M politburo member Brinda Karat said: "I think it is unfortunate. Any citizen may vote or not vote, it is his right. The CPI-M, not only in parliament but also outside, has been fighting for protecting the rights of minorities.
"It is an integral part of the CPI-M (agenda) that full protection should be ensured to minorities from the vicious attacks of communal forces," Karat told IANS.
Pious Malekkandathil, an associate professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), said relations between the church and the CPI-M had historically not been smooth.
"The church thinks it is considered a class enemy by the Marxists," said Pious.
"Relations between the church and the Communists have not been smooth since the party's formation. Later the strained relations became smooth. That was during the time of (then) Kerala chief minister E.K. Nayanar.
"But the entire scenario changed after the demise of Nayanar, who was a very liberal leader. The new generation leadership failed to understand the church. Their policies and programmes provoked the church."