In a state with an apostolic heritage, the migration trend from southern Kerala has led to fewer Christians
Catholic priests and worshipers pray during a Good Friday procession on a beach in Chowara, a fishing village in the southern Indian state of Kerala, on April 2, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
Migration comes naturally to the people of Kerala, the southern Indian state once encouraged and supported by churches and Christian communities as a means of economic prosperity and educational advancement. The trend once encouraged appears to have created a crisis for the Catholic Church in the region.
Kerala, the bacon-like state on the Arabian coast, was exposed to foreign cultures for more than 2,300 years as merchants and their mercenaries arrived from all over the world for maritime trade.
From biblical times to British colonialism, the coast of Kerala was exposed to the Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British, first because of its expensive spices and later for colonize the earth.
Kerala Christians, who claim a tradition since apostolic times, have been at the forefront of migration. The Syro-Malabar Church, one of the Seven Churches that regard the Apostle Thomas as their father of faith, has always encouraged the migration of its youth, which it is now beginning to regret.
USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and EU countries have become the favorite destination for job seekers from the most literate state of India.
According to a study, more than three quarters of young people in the Church between the ages of 20 and 32 have emigrated from Kerala, the base of this Eastern Rite Church. If the trend continues, the future of the Church is bleak as it would have fewer people and more elderly and unemployed among its members.
The decrease in the number of Christians is already worrying. Christianity continues to be Kerala’s third largest religion with 18% of its approximately 33 million people. They were more than 20% ten years ago and 32% at the beginning of the century.
Although a minority, Christians are proportionally much more numerous in Kerala than in the rest of the country as a whole. The Church had a say in the social, political and economic affairs of the state.
Unlike other religious groups in Kerala, Christians have shown a tendency to migrate with families to foreign countries to settle permanently. Their next generations become foreign citizens and prefer not to reconnect with the ancestral land.
A new trend began in the 1970s of migrating to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries as job opportunities developed there. According to the latest data, GCC countries are home to 89.2% of the state’s expatriates. A total of 4 million Keralites are in foreign countries, at least half of whom are Christians.
There are several Christian churches in the GCC countries and a fully-fledged Vicariate in South Arabia, of which several priests and thousands of Catholics are from Kerala.
The petrodollar boom in the Gulf is ending and there is less need for Indians in the GCC countries. In addition, the strict land ownership regulations would also force the original migrants to return to their country. But the trend shows that most of their children will stay or move to other countries to work and study.
The state’s women, who previously worked as healthcare professionals in the Middle East, are taking advantage of the growing demand for healthcare workers elsewhere in the post-pandemic world. With them, their husbands also migrate. Again, hardly a few of the younger generation are expected to return to Kerala.
In order to catch them young, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and EU countries are courting young people in the state on student visas. As their numbers have increased recently, the state government is planning to establish a database of Kerala students studying abroad.
Currently ruled by the Keralite Indians, they are the largest migrant community in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.
The trend of migration offers another worry to the Catholic community, which in some areas of the state owned large tracts of agricultural land. With larger families becoming scarce and no young people available to watch over and cultivate them, families are forced to sell the land, often to people from other communities.
The large-scale sale of land is causing a demographic change in some diocesan areas, which should negatively affect the socio-political and economic position of the community.
The government has no reason to discourage migration. According to the World Bank, India got $87 billion in remittances in 2021, or 3% of its GDP, an increase of 4.6% from the previous year.
Data from the Reserve Bank of India, the country’s apex bank, showed that Kerala received almost 20% of total remittances, making it the top of the country’s 28 states.
Some studies indicate that the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, which face severe shortages of skilled workers due to aging populations and low birth rates, account for nearly 22% of remittances to Kerala. .
The concern of the Catholic hierarchy is palpable. Some Kerala clergy on social media and pulpits have urged Christians not to migrate.
Some Church leaders have also offered incentives to young parents to have large families in their attempt to stem the decline in the population of Catholics, caused by low fertility rates as well as migration.
Migration and low birth rates are serious concerns for the Kerala Church, but unless leaders make concrete and practical plans, the number of Christians will continue to decline in a state that boasts of a apostolic heritage.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.