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Why Bishop Franco Mulakkal is among the most powerful Christians in Punjab

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Franco Mulakkal, accused of raping a nun, headed the Jalandhar diocese, a powerful body that promotes Catholic Christian activities in Punjab & Himachal.

Chandigarh: Jalandhar Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who is accused of raping a Kerala nun, is among the most powerful Christians in Punjab. Wooed by political parties across the board, the 54-year-old bishop commands great spiritual influence over Catholic Christians in the state.

It was visible in the way Mulakkal was given a hero’s welcome in Jalandhar Tuesday, after the Kerala High Court granted him bail Monday. His supporters threw petals and garlanded him.

“The prayers of the people of Punjab supported me. I believe that they will pray for me even in the days to come,” he told reporters.

Also read: These are the Christian priests accused of rape across Kerala churches

Mulakkal has been asked to surrender his passport and not enter Kerala except to appear before the investigation officers once in two weeks.

In June, a nun in Kerala had alleged that the Jalandhar-based bishop had raped her 13 times between 2014 and 2016 during his visits to the southern state.

He wrote to Pope Francis offering to “step aside temporarily”, and was arrested on 21 September after a vociferous and continuous protest by nuns and priests in Kerala demanding action on the nun’s complaint.

Mullakal had denied the charges claiming that “anti-church” forces were bent upon bringing a bad name to the institution. He alleged that that nun was involved in an “illicit relationship” with her relative and he had ordered action against her.

A grand welcome

The Jalandhar diocese organised a grand welcome for Bishop Mulakkal on his arrival from Kerala Tuesday. Almost 2,000 supporters led by employees of the various educational and charitable institutions controlled by the Diocese came in buses from across the state to show solidarity with him. Posters and hoardings welcoming the bishop were put up.

He was received by the Bishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Bombay, Agnelo Rufino Gracias, who has taken over the administration of the Jalandhar diocese from him. Mulakkal said since he is expected to remain busy with his case, Bishop Gracias will continue to administer the diocese and they will both share the Bishop House.

A prayer meeting was held inside the Bishop House, which was telecast live outside on a screen for the supporters.

Addressing his supporters, Mulakkal said their prayers had borne fruit, and asked them to continue praying for him as the second phase is yet to come. Supporters were asked to begin a relay fast for the bishop.

Mulakkal said though his focus will be on defending his case, whenever possible, he will conduct ceremonies and prayers in accordance with the duties assigned to him as bishop.

What makes him so powerful?

Christians constitute slightly more than 1 per cent of Punjab’s population, with the majority settled in Amritsar, Jalandhar and Ludhiana.

Before Partition, Jalandhar was under Lahore diocese and remained abandoned for years after Independence. In 1952, Rome declared the ‘Jalandhar Prefecture’ and put a British national in charge. In 1971, the unit was upgraded to a diocese.

The Jalandhar diocese is a powerful body that promotes all Catholic Christian activities in Amritsar, Faridkot, Ferozepur, Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Ludhiana, Moga, Muktsar, Nawanshahr, Tarn Taran in Punjab besides Chamba, Hamirpur, Kangra and Una in Himachal Pradesh.

As its head, the bishop commanded control over the hundreds of institutions — educational and charitable —spread across the two states.

Catholic church-run schools are the most sought-after in Punjab. In 2016, the bishop tried to promote “course sheets” to replace heavy school bags in the schools the diocese runs.  He also rooted for eco-friendly Diwali and Christmas celebrations in schools run by the the diocese.

Apart from the schools and colleges run by the diocese, it also directs all spiritual activities of the Church, patronising several convents, seminaries and houses in the state.

Humble beginnings

Mulakkal belongs to Thrissur in Kerala. His father was a headmaster in a local school. He studied at St Mary’s Petit Seminary there.

Impressed with the work of Bishop Keeprath (of Jalandhar diocese from 1971 to 2007), Mulakkal decided to shift his base to Punjab. He was first ordained as a priest in Jalandhar in April 1990.

He did his Master’s in English and sociology from Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, and earned a doctorate degree in moral theology from Alphonsian Academy of Lateran University, Rome. He remained international treasurer of the Priest Union of India while he was there.

In 2001, he authored A theological investigation into the moral teachings of Guru Nànak from a catholic perspective, his doctoral work. He remained head of the department and professor at Holy Trinity Regional Major Seminary in Jalandhar and member of the diocesan College of Consulters. He also served the Jalandhar diocese as its spokesperson.

Mulakkal was appointed auxiliary bishop of Delhi and Titular Bishop of Culla in 2009. He held vital positions in the organisation of the church. He remained the regional chairman of Northern Regional Youth Commission, secretary of the regional bishops’ conference of North India and consulter of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, Rome.

Pope Benedict XVI appointed the bishop as the consulter for the pontifical council of inter-religious dialogue in Rome.

In June 2013, Pope Francis appointed him the Bishop of Jalandhar. He paid obeisance at the Golden Temple in Amritsar soon after his coronation in the first week of August. The event was attended by almost 25,000 people, including over 700 sisters, 400 priests, 27 bishops and a cardinal.

Politicians flocked to him

In August 2014, then deputy chief minister of Punjab Sukhbir Singh Badal met the bishop at Trinity College in Jalandhar where a sarv dharma prayer had been organised by the diocese. Then chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and Akal Takht jathedar Giani Gurbachan Singh too attended the prayer.

Punjab’s former education minister Daljit Singh Cheema was the chief guest at the silver jubilee celebrations of the bishop’s baptism as a priest in May 2015.

Also read: Bishop Franco Mulakkal steps down, to face interrogation by Kerala police

The elaborate celebrations took place at the bishop’s native place in Thrissur in Kerala. Apart from the senior Akali leader, former union minister Oscar Fernandes, Thrissur MP C.N. Jayadevan, members of the minority commission were also present at the celebrations.

Before the 2009 parliamentary elections, Mulakkal made it clear that the Christian community will show its resentment against riot-accused BJP candidates in Odisha by not voting for “tainted persons”.

Last year, he led a delegation to meet former Akal Takht jathedar Giani Gurbachan Singh to express dismay over the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib at Bhangawa village, for which a Christian was arrested.

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