Muslim businessman takes over Kerala's century-old Catholic daily

.- A Muslim businessman has become owner of a newspaper that the Catholic Church ran for more than 100 years in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

M.A. Pharis, 46, has become chairperson of the public limited company that owns Deepika (little lamp), Kerala's oldest Malayalam-language daily. He is replacing Bishop Mathew Arackal of Kanjirappally, who had led the company since 2003.

Deepika's print line began to carry Pharis' name on July 16, but neither the daily nor its sister publications announced the change in their news columns. Other local dailies broke the news on July 17.

The Kerala-based Carmelites of Mary Immaculate congregation launched Deepika in 1887. Two priests, Fr. Nidhirikkal Manikkathanar and Blessed Kuriakose Elias Chavara, called it Nazrani Deepika when it began. In the local dialect, Nazrani means "Christian," or a follower of the Nazarene.

The newspaper was operated by the religious congregation until 1989, when ownership shifted to "Rashtra Deepika Limited," a newly created public limited company. Laypeople, dioceses and congregations shared ownership of the company that increasingly incurred heavy losses.

Deepika was once Kerala's leading daily, with a circulation of about 300,000. It now trails in third place among local dailies.

To help the company, the synod of Syro-Malabar bishops appointed Bishop Arackal as the company's chairperson. The prelate reportedly brought in Pharis to invest in the company and to help it get over the financial crisis.

Bishop Arackal told UCA News "the changeover was nothing unusual," only part of executing decisions of the company's board of directors.

A journalist working for the company, who asked not to be named, told UCA News that Pharis introduced a voluntary retirement scheme to lay off excess staff, but it in practice, it was used to help remove journalists who resisted his policy changes.

Shaji Jacob, a Catholic who had worked for Deepika for 20 years, told UCA News that the paper has been following Pharis' policies since 2005. He said the two priests who serve as the newspaper’s managing director and general manager are merely kept there to try to retain Catholic readers.

But Jomon Puthenpurackal, a Catholic social activist, said Deepika has already lost its image as a value-based publication.

Kuriakose Ellenkiyil, an elderly reader of the newspaper, remarked that it was sad to see the Church surrender control of the historic newspaper. The newspaper had stood for the rights of Christians in the state and "made innumerable contributions for the Church's development," he told UCA News.

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