A Catholic diocese in India has announced that it will offer cash incentives to families who were married from the year 2000 onward and have five or more children.

The Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Diocese of Palai in Kerala state said it will pay 1,500 rupees (about US$21) monthly to the families and will provide free education to the fourth and the subsequent children.

Women with three children will also be entitled to free pre- and post-natal care in Church-run hospitals.

The scheme is part of the observance of the “Year of the Family” of the Syro-Malabar Church, said a Radio Veritas Asia report.

“It is nothing new. We took it up again in the backdrop of the pandemic and the ongoing year of family celebrations,” said Father Joseph Kuttianikal, director of the diocese’s family apostolate body.

The priest, however, said the diocese is yet to ascertain the actual number of families eligible for the program.

Father Thomas Thayil, youth director of the diocese, said the plan aims to “strengthen our Catholic families,” adding that the Christian population in the state has been “on a steady decline.”

“We want our couples to have more children,” he said.

According to India’s 2011 census, the state of Kerala has a population of about 33 million people with Hindus making up 54.73 percent, Muslims 26.56 percent, and Christians 18.38 percent.

More in Asia - Pacific

In a 2019 pastoral letter, Archbishop Joseph Perumthottam of Changanassery noted that the Christian population of Kerala has dwindled over the years, creating an “alarming situation.”

“During the formation of Kerala, Christians were the second-largest community in the state,” said the prelate.

The Catholic bishops’ conference of Kerala dismissed allegations that the initiative of the Diocese of Palai is part of a deliberate attempt to increase the Christian population and destabilize the country.

“There is no room for any controversy,” Father M. Paul Antony, head of the Commission on Family of the bishops’ conference, was quoted in a report in Hindustan Times.

“There are many policies to support families that receive more children,” said Father Paul Simenthy, secretary of the commission, in a letter to church leaders.

“We have to formulate more such measures to boost our family life,” said the priest.

Father Paul Thelekkat of the Syro-Malabar church said the initiative “is not to raise numbers only,” adding that it is “a comprehensive move to uphold family values and cherish the Catholic way of life.”

(Story continues below)

“It is all the more important now as the anti-life campaign is getting stronger globally,” said the priest.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, meanwhile, urged the faithful to mark the 50th anniversary of India’s “Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act” on Aug. 10 as a “day of mourning,” said a report from Radio Veritas Asia.

In a letter to the faithful, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, president of the bishops’ conference, noted that “millions of abortions have taken place in the country” after the passage of the law, and “there is no sign of slowing down of this anti-life trend.”

The “Day of Mourning” aims to express the Church’s “sorrow at the killing of unwanted babies” and to promote a “pro-life” mentality in Indian society.

The campaign for “prayer and reparation for the decades of innocent bloodshed” includes the ringing of church bells; presentation of pro-life programs on Catholic media channels, and the observance of “mercy hour” in parishes, religious houses, seminaries, and Catholic institutions.

Cardinal Oswald reminded the faithful that the Church is in the forefront of promoting a pro-life culture throughout the world.

Since the passage of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act in 1971, abortion has been legally available in India under a broad range of criteria, including to save a woman’s life, to protect her physical and mental health, in cases of economic and social necessity, and if contraception has failed between married couples.