(UCA News) — The police agency dealing with economic crimes in India’s central Madhya Pradesh state has raided six locations, including the residence and offices of the bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC), following a complaint of fraud involving 50 million rupees ($625,000).
Some 70 officials of the state police’s Economic Offenses Wing (EOW) raided the home and office of Bishop Surendra Kumar Sukka in Chhindwara district on Nov. 10. Police said he was accused of swindling money from the provident fund– an investment fund for employees equally shared by both the employee and the employer for their social security.
A senior ELC official dismissed the allegation as baseless and said a false complaint resulted in the investigation.
The complaint from one of the relatives of a Church member, who was upset with the election of Bishop Sukka and the new leadership in November 2021, led to the probe, Pastor Ashok Chouksey, head treasurer of the ELC in Madhya Pradesh, told UCA News on Nov. 11.
The complaint said ELC officials had deducted a part of employees’ salaries for the provident fund. But the monies were not deposited with the state authority controlling it, said an official release from the probe agency.
The fraud amounts to the tune of 50 million rupees and it has been going on since 2011. Employees noticed the fraud when some of them went to claim the provident fund for an employee who died during the Covid-19 pandemic, the police release said.
The team also raided the residences of four other persons associated with the ELC in the same district, and a separate team raided one person based in Bhopal, the state capital. All on the same day.
The police raid failed to produce any incriminating document nor any unaccounted money from the possession of Church officials, said Pastor Chouksey.
“The ELC does not run any businesses or institutions that warrant deducting for the provident fund. However, the Church registered 125 of its ministers with the government’s provident fund authority for their social security and deposited a fixed amount,” he said.
“All of them barring 38 settled their cases and some of them died. Among the 38, the Church blocked the provident fund as some of them committed irregularities such as encroaching [upon] Church properties and building private houses, converting Church accommodation into private residences among other things”, he said.
“We have also officially informed the Provident Fund Commissioner about it and the matter is pending before him,” Pastor Chauksey said adding he was the rightful authority to conduct the probe, not the EOW.
The EOW has not released any details of the recovery of any incriminating documents, cash or other things. It merely said it had started the probe into the allegation.
Church leaders also suspect a political motivation behind the raids based on an allegation, which is supposed to be dealt with by a federal government agency, the office of the Provident Fund.
This is the second raid on the residence and office of a Protestant bishop in less than three months in the state on allegations of fraud.
Federal officials on Sept. 8 raided the residence of Bishop P. C. Singh of the Church of North India in Jabalpur diocese after he was accused of swindling over 27 million rupees ($338,000) collected as school fees from diocesan schools.
Bishop Singh and his son are now in judicial custody. His wife and daughter are also under investigation in connection with the case.
Christian leaders in Madhya Pradesh accuse right-wing Hindu groups of targeting them on the alleged plea of religious conversion with an intention to tarnish the image of the Church.
The state government, run Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP-Indian people’s party), supports the ideology of making India a land of Hindu hegemony.
Christians account for less than 1 percent of the more than 71 million population, while the national average is only 2.3 percent.