A church controversy has spilled over into legal action after the Believers Church in India filed a defamation suit against the Church of South India.
The dispute revolves around KP Yohannan, the controversial head of The Believers Church which is an evangelical denomination in India that claims to have more than 2.6 million members.
The Church of South India – linked to the Anglican Communion – is the largest Protestant denomination in the country and refuses to consider KP Yohannan a real bishop.
When the Kerala Council of Churches – an ecumenical body in Kerala State affiliated to the National Council of Churches in India – admitted The Believers Church as one of its members, the Church of South India announced it would withdraw its four dioceses in Kerala from participation in protest.
Most Rev Thomas Oommen, moderator of the CSI, said: 'The CSI never considers the Believers Church as an episcopal church or accepts its leader, KP Yohannan, a bishop. As per the CSI view, KP Yohannan is a layman and the KCC decision, overlooking the CSI objection, was unfortunate.'
Now Bishop Oommen is being sued for defamation and is accused by Rt Rev Joju Mathew, Bishop of the Niranom diocese in The Believers Church, of slander and defaming the Church's leaders.
But the original conflict dates right back to when The Believers Church was founded in 1990 and was accused of being a 'cult' and of trying to evangelise Christians from other Protestant denominations.
Then in 2003 Rt Rev KJ Samuel, then Bishop in East Kerala and moderator of the CSI, along with two bishops from the Church of North India, consecrated KP Yohannan as a bishop in The Believers Church.
But the move was later denounced by both the Church of North India, who deposed the two bishops involved, according to Anglican Ink, and the Church of South India and Bishop Samuel was replaced by BP Sugandhar as moderator.
Now the CSI considers KP Yohannan's consecration 'invalid' and does not consider The Believers Church as a legitimate episcopal body.
Announcing its withdrawal from the KCC earlier this month, a CSI statement read: 'The KCC, a congregation of episcopal Churches, was formed at a CSI meeting held in Kollam in 1950. However, the proceedings held at the KCC committees and assembly questioned the reputation of the CSI, which took the initiative for the formation of the council. Moreover, the KCC had decided to include Believers' Church overruling the National Council of Churches in India, which had earlier turned down Believers Church's request for a membership.'
The press statement added: 'This will be communicated to all the churches and the synod has also decided not to provide churches and their institutions for the functions of the KCC.'
The Believers Church hit back and a spokesperson said: 'The statement of the CSI Moderator amounts to defaming the Believers Church in the public. As the head of a Church, he shouldn't have issued such an irresponsible statement against another Church. The former CSI bishop had accepted our invitation for the consecration of K P Yohannan as a bishop.'
The spokesperson added: 'We are surprised over the CSI's reasoning for dissociating itself from the KCC.'
The controversy was described by one senior Indian church figure as the last thing the Indian Church needs as Christians are facing increasing violence and persecution for their beliefs.
At the same time KP Yohannan and The Believers Church's founding organisation, Gospel for Asia, are facing severe criticism and an investigation for financial mismanagement after revelations by blogger Warren Throckmorton.
Christian Today has contacted both The Believers Church and the Church of South India for comment.