THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The debate over the destruction of Holy Cross on the foothills of Agasthyarkoodam peak is getting murkier with the Neyyattinkara diocese of the Latin Catholic Church intensifying its protest programmes.
Five concrete crosses were installed in the forests near Bonacaud tea estate on March 18. Two Holy Crosses of 5 m height were installed on a hill top while three others were installed on the trekking path. The area falls under the Palode Forest Reserve linked to the Agasthayamala Biosphere Reserve.
All the crosses were found demolished on the night of August 25 creating unrest among believers. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, in a meeting with church representatives, has assured to favourably consider the latter’s demands including reinstallation of the crosses.
The Neyyattinkara diocese of Latin Catholic church claims the hilltop has been a pilgrim centre since 1957. According to Fr Christudas, vicar general of the diocese, it was a lesser known pilgrim station until recent times.
“Believers used to visit the hilltop where a small cross was present until it was replaced by a bigger one in March. We used to conduct ‘way of the cross’ to the hilltop on Good Fridays,” he said.
“Except the crosses, we haven’t made any constructions there. It is not a dense forest but a meadow. Pilgrims never indulge in activities that pollute the area,” he added.
But according to the Forest Department, a small cross was set up by some persons on the hilltop after 2009. “Since the area is connected with the ecologically sensitive Agasthyamala Biosphere, we cannot allow any kind of interventions. The hilltop is a grassland and moreover it is an elephant corridor where human interventions cannot be allowed,” said an official.
The department also opposes Fr Christudas’ claims that the first cross was installed in 1957 before the Kerala Forest Act 1961 came into existence. “The area falls under the Palode Reserve which was notified in 1898. Even if the cross was installed in 1957, it was illegal under the provisions of the Travancore Forest Act, 1887,” officials said.
Meanwhile, the Forest and Police departments are conducting separate probes to identify the persons who destroyed the cross. The church suspects that the attack was perpetuated by some extreme Hindu right wing organisations.
Fr Christudas said he suspects the Forest Department too had a role in the attack. “I’m not aware whether they were directly involved. But no one can reach the spot without crossing the Kanithadam check post manned by the Forest officials. If they allowed the anti-social elements to visit the place and return after the attack, it is a lapse on the part of the department,” he said.
The Forest Department has convened a meeting with the church representatives on Friday. “We will intensify the protest programmes if our demands are not met at the earliest,” vicar general said.