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PANAJI, India (ChurchMilitant.com) - A prominent archbishop who is at the center of a series of land scams benefiting builder barons will be made a cardinal on Saturday.
Pope Francis will confer a red hat on Filipe Neri Ferrão, archbishop of the former Portuguese colony of Goa, despite the prelate's involvement in land deals that flout the pontiff's green agenda.
Locals who wrote to Francis cited his eco-encyclical, Laudato Si, and accused Ferrão of selling agricultural land on the island of Vanxim for conversion into a "luxury hotel, luxury villas, golf course and club, private marinas and casinos."
The islanders of Vanxim were not informed, but they were bullied, pressured, bribed and co-opted into surrendering their land rights to cultivate paddy, the letter added. The pope ignored the complaints.
The island, historically owned by the Augustinian nuns of the Santa Monica convent, became the property of the archdiocese of Goa and Daman after the colonial Portuguese administration expelled all religious orders from Goa.
"The sale of Vanxim Island by the office of the archbishop of Goa on Feb. 11, 2006, is the most well-known land scam of Goa," Dr. Sebastião Anthony Rodrigues, a campaigner and Vanxim resident, told Church Militant.
"What is even more serious is that it was approved by the Holy See in 1997 during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, and though we petitioned Pope Francis and India's apostolic nuncio, they did nothing," Dr. Rodrigues lamented.
The practicing Catholic, who says his wife died fighting for their ancestral land, quoted the archbishop saying that what he did by selling Vanxim "is morally wrong and legally right."
"How can one be right and wrong at the same time?" Rodrigues asked. "Pope Francis' choice of Abp. Ferrão for the role of cardinal is unbecoming of a true Catholic pontiff."
The land deals were initiated by Ferrão's predecessor, Abp. Raul Gonsalves. After his retirement, Ferrão sold the island on Feb. 11, 2006. On both occasions, Vanxim locals were kept in the dark, islander Maggie Silveira told the papal nuncio in 2016.
Campaigners say that the archdiocese sold the land to local businessman Mahendra Gaunekar, who, in turn, sold it to the Bangalore-based Ozone Leisure and Resorts Private Limited. Ozone advertised the project as a large-scale, five-star, luxury villa-cum-resort project.
Silveira accused Abp. Ferrão of seriously violating canon and civil law and going into "propaganda overdrive" to justify his "wrongdoings."
But Abp. Ferrão's secretary, Fr. Joaquim Loiola Pereira, told Church Militant that "the sale of the inundated land on the island of Vanxim was being blown out of proportion by the local media."
Pereira said that the archbishop had responded to the accusations in a press statement published in the Goa archdiocesan pastoral bulletin, Renovação.
In its press release, the archdiocese notes that the chiefly agricultural land, measuring 583,592 square meters, was owned by the Santa Monica Fund of the archdiocese of Goa and Daman.
The land "had not been cultivated for decades due to inundations," the press release said. "Twenty years ago, concepts like ecotourism and conservation of the environment were quite alien to our people," the archdiocese maintained.
"Besides, the Church was also not getting any revenue from the land," and the Holy See had granted permission for the sale, the statement added. According to the law, if the land is not cultivated for three years, then the tenant farmers lose their rights, and the land reverts to its owner.
Activists also allege that Church authorities have pocketed large sums in the form of "black money" — a system endemic to property deals in India, where a smaller sum is "officially declared" on the deed of sale, and a larger sum is passed on to the vendor "under the table."
Following sustained protests, developers have scaled back proposals to build a golf course and casinos on the island.
Meanwhile, two other properties sold by the archdiocese in Caranzalem and Porvorim are being hotly disputed.
Advocate Andre Antonio Pereira said that Ferrão could not sell the property since it was willed by the owner "to his soul for eternity." He added that the land did not belong to the archbishop but was only to be administered by him — a common custom carried out by Catholics who want to ensure that Masses will be said for their souls.
"The property at Caranzalem is situated in Taleigao village and the land was bequeathed to Our Lady of Rosary installed in the testators' private chapel at Caranzalem," the lawyer said.
Since the matter is pending before the high court for adjudication and is currently sub judice, Pereira said he could not comment.
"At Porvorim, the new High Court premises was taken over by the government by paying compensation to the archdiocese assuming that it is the owner of the same," the advocate explained. "However, the land originally belongs to the Communidade of Serula, which had allocated the same to the Santa Monica Institution."
"The understanding was that the archdiocese would administer the land and pass on the revenue generated to the Santa Monica Institution for their sustenance," Pereira added.
Ferrão is currently the president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India.