The flight of high-technology jobs to low-wage countries like India has recently become a contentious issue in the West, but "outsourcing" of a different kind has been going on for years without controversy and without affecting livelihoods. Roman Catholic priests in India regularly conduct Catholic rituals for people in the West.

At hundreds of churches that dot the Southern Indian state of Kerala, Roman Catholic priests offer masses for the dead and give thanks for believers thousands of miles away in Europe and the United States.

Church officials say foreign bishops have been forwarding requests for prayers to Indian clergymen for decades. Paul Thelakat, spokesman for the Catholic archdiocese in Cochin, says the practice was triggered by an ever-growing shortage of priests in Western countries.

"There are more people offering Mass stipends and less priests to say Mass," he explaines. "And that is the reason the Mass stipends have to be sent to some other country."

Requests to say Mass come by post or e-mail from countries such as Canada, the United States, France and Germany. The requests usually come through a foreign bishop, but sometimes individuals send requests directly to the Indian priests.

The practice is widespread in Kerala, which has the largest number of churches in India, and where almost every fourth person is a Christian. Nationally, Christians make up only about two percent of India's predominately-Hindu population.

Almost any subject is fair game: a Kerala church conducted a thanksgiving for a German fan of Formula One champion Michael Schumacher after the German driver won the Australian Grand Prix last March.

Church officials say there are no rules against prayers being said in a distant country and language is unimportant. In Kerala, the Mass is said in the local language, Malayalam. The only criterion, officials insist, is that the ritual be done in a sacred manner. To help ensure this, priests are restricted to one mass a day.

According to Mr. Thelakat, saying prayers for foreign clients is an important source of basic income for Kerala's Catholic priests, who get five dollars per foreign request for saying a mass to supplement their $50 monthly stipend.

But he insists outsourcing prayers is not a commercial enterprise for the churches and has only attracted attention since the controversy over the outsourcing of more conventional American and European work to India.

"It is one way of helping priests in this country," he adds. "All over the world the priests, [the] Catholic Church, is considered [a] brotherhood, therefore they exchange mass intentions, mass stipends."

Still, the practice has raised some eyebrows in the West. One of Britain's largest trade unions, Amicus, recently called the outsourcing of religious services "a real shock" and said it shows that no aspect of life in the West is sacred.

In New Delhi, Vice President of the All India Catholic Church, John Dayal, says saying mass at long distance is quite common and is part of reaching out to believers. He notes that Indian clergy also assist western churches by doing temporary work in summer months when local priests go on vacation.

"A very large number of Indian theological students who are priests, full-fledged priests, they go out and they make a little money in America, in Germany, in England in France," he notes.

Church officials say such practices are becoming inevitable due to the difficulty western churches face in recruiting more priests.