SAN JOSE, California, USA—The drive-by shooting of Pastor Sultan Masih in Punjab, India on July 16 is alarming minorities of Indian origin as far away as California.
“We denounce this killing in the strongest terms,” said Bhajan Singh, Founding Director of Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI). “This execution-style murder by unknown assailants appears intended to orchestrate violence and division among India’s many disenfranchised communities. Pastor Sultan Masih’s death is another tragic lynching like so many others India has experienced since 2014. We weep with those who weep, join the call for justice, and pray for peace to prevail in Punjab.”
Sultan Masih was talking on his cellphone outside the Temple of God Church in Ludhiana, Punjab when two masked men on a motorcycle sped by and shot him several times. He was rushed to Dayanand Medical College and Hospital, but succumbed to his wounds and soon died. Masih is survived by wife Sarbjit, son Ali Shah, 26, and daughter Hanok, 18.
“I lift up my prayers for Sultan Masih’s family and parishioners,” Father Joshua Lickter told OFMI. A human rights advocate and priest at Incarnation Anglican Church in Northern California, Fr. Lickter added: “I grieve with them, and I pray that more American Christians would stand in solidarity with him and all of India’s persecuted minorities.”
Open Doors USA, a non-profit organization focused on serving persecuted Christians, ranks the level of persecution in India as “very high” and scores it near the same level as Saudi Arabia. In a 2017 Fact Sheet, they reported: “The level of impunity has gone up markedly, with communities of converts to Christianity from Hinduism bearing the brunt of the persecution.”
At the center of the persecution are Christian pastors, several of whom have suffered extremely violent assaults throughout India in recent months.
In Telangana, on January 21, Pastor K.A. Swamy was distributing Bibles when a mob surrounded him and dragged him to the police station. He was detained at the station overnight and beaten. “I was quite shocked that the police had retained Swamy since morning at the verbal complaint of the Hindu extremists,” said Swamy’s friend R. John Vinay Kumar. After being released in the morning, Swamy fell into a coma. According to doctors, the left side of his brain was bleeding and the right side of his body was paralyzed. On January 27, Pastor Gandham Padma Rao was visiting the home of an elderly church member when a mob surrounded him, began punching and kicking him, and attempted to stone him before nearby villagers intervened. Rao testified to police that his attackers were “members of a Hindu nationalist group,” but later discovered the police refused to record their testimony.
Also in Telangana, on February 16, Pastor Raorukala Samuel was engaging in outdoor preaching with members of his church when a mob surrounded them. “[They] started to beat us,” said Samuel. “[They] threatened to kill us if we continued…. Mr. Srinivas Rao, the MPTC (Mandal Parishad Territorial Constituencies) a local elected official, was leading the group of attackers.” Samuel called the police. “I emphasized the emergency situation, that Christians were being beaten up and needed to be rescued from the hands of the Hindu radicals.” When police finally arrived, he says: “We were threatened by the police as if we were the accused.” Officers refused to file a report and threatened to charge the Christians.
In Bihar, on April 5, Pastor Sikander Kumar was confronted by a mob outside of his home. “When the pastor stepped out, 15 men started beating him and accused him of conversions in the village,” reported fellow pastor Arun Kumar. The mob beat Sikander with iron rods until he fell to the ground with a head wound. He lost his hearing as a result. Police charged no one.
In Tamil Nadu, on May 3, Pastor John Muller returned from a shopping trip to find his church building and his attached home burned to the ground. Muller stated: “We lost everything. My wife is 26 weeks pregnant. We are expecting our first child. We are homeless.” Three days before, the pastor reported, a gang threatened him and told him to leave. Police made no arrests.
“The impunity that allows radical Hindu groups in India to thrive must end,” said Fr. Lickter. “The government has no right to tell the rest of the world they are a democracy while allowing religious persecution of this kind to continue.”
“India has a long history of division caused by Brahmanical forces who employ extreme tactics to split the multitude of minority groups along religious and caste lines for the benefit of the upper echelon of India,” stated Pieter Friedrich, a South Asian Affairs analyst. “Even more disturbing, there have been many instances of quasi-government agencies orchestrating such actions in the past.”
Several high-profile crimes in past years have been exposed as staged incidents, explained Friedrich. “One notable example was the 2001 Chittisinghpura Massacre in which 36 Kashmiri Sikhs were massacred by Indian Army forces who intended to blame the historically unprecedented crime on Muslim extremists,” he said. “Another example is the 2007 Samjhauta Express bombing, which was also initially blamed on Muslims but was eventually pinned on Hindu nationalists linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a fascist group affiliated with India’s current ruling party.”
In his personal experience, reported Bhajan Singh, Indian minorities everywhere are finding common ground. “Bahujan Samaj, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and other religious and caste-based minorities are coming together to counter the millennia-old tactics of the Brahmanical order in today’s India,” said Singh. “This frightens India’s ruling elite because they profit directly from communal conflict.”
In addition to the ongoing struggle of caste segregation and violence, Christians and Muslims in India face additional discrimination due to accusations by Hindu nationalists of belonging to a “foreign” faith.” Today, five states have active “anti-conversion” laws which generally require government permission before changing faiths; several other states are considering similar laws and the BJP-controlled Union Government has threatened to pass a national law.
OFMI leaders urged the U.S. Congress and other world bodies to speak out against the ongoing oppression of minorities and denounce impunity for the oppressors. Praising the U.S. government for past remarks acknowledging anti-minority violence in India, OFMI cited a 2016 report (PDF link) by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which states:
“In 2015, religious tolerance deteriorated and religious freedom violations increased in India. Minority communities, especially Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs, experienced numerous incidents of intimidation, harassment, and violence, largely at the hands of Hindu nationalist groups. Members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tacitly supported these groups and used religiously-divisive language to further inflame tensions. These issues, combined with longstanding problems of police bias and judicial inadequacies, have created a pervasive climate of impunity, where religious minority communities feel increasingly insecure, with no recourse when religiously-motivated crimes occur.… Additionally, the national government or state governments applied several laws to restrict religious conversion, cow slaughter, and foreign funding of NGOs.”