:[email protected] will join leaders of local Sikh and other Indian communities outside City Hall in downtown Roseville, CA on August 28 [RSVP on Facebook] for a candlelight vigil commemorating Pastor Sultan Masih, who was gunned down last month outside his Punjab, India church.
“I wanted to hold this vigil in the community where I live and worship because I think it is important we recognize that this horrific act occurred to Pastor Masih in the community in which he lived and worshipped,” says Fr. Joshua Lickter of Roseville-based Incarnation Anglican Church. Lickter, who has advocated for the human rights of minorities in India, will speak at the vigil. He explains, “Geography may separate us; but our shared human experience unites us. What happens to one person or community in India, or anywhere else in the world, impacts all of us, and we need to stand in solidarity against this kind of inhuman oppression.”
Masih was killed on July 16 in Ludhiana, Punjab. His family reports that members of a local Hindu extremist group repeatedly warned him to stop preaching before he was murdered.
“The people who killed him were surely monitoring his activities because they waited for the time until he was alone,” says Alisha Masih, one of his surviving sons. Alisha says his father was threatened by phone, internet, and even in person. He notes that the Ludhiana Temple of God Church, which Sultan Masih co-founded, had just celebrated its 25th anniversary. Shortly after the celebration, men confronted Pastor Masih to demand to know who sponsored the event. “Our father was a courageous man and he was never afraid to die for Jesus,” says Alisha.
Members of the local Sikh community also plan to join the vigil, which is cosponsored by Lickter’s church and Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI). “We urge all India’s religious minorities to rise to the occasion and unite in common cause,” says OFMI Director Bhajan Singh. “Hindu extremists benefit by fomenting division and making Indian fight each other. It is vital that all communities — Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Christians — embrace secularism and mutually respect each other’s religions.”
“India is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for Christians,” remarks Pieter Friedrich, an analyst of South Asian affairs. Friedrich, who will join the vigil, continues, “Persecution of Christians in India is rapidly increasing under the Hindu nationalist government which came to power in India. Throughout the whole country, Christians are being beaten and killed for their faith, but the government’s rhetoric is only encouraging the violence.”
According to Open Doors USA, a watchdog organization, the persecution level for Indian Christians is “very high.” Its World Watch List 2017, which ranks the top countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith, ranks India 15th out of the 50 worst countries in the world to be a Christian. Fourteenth place fell to Saudi Arabia. “Of the 64 million Christians in India, approximately 39 million experience direct persecution,” reports the organization.
“The first quarter of 2017 saw 248 persecution incidents wherein Christians were harassed, threatened or attacked for their faith,” explains Sarah Cunningham of Open Doors. “The number of incidents in first six months of 2017 is now up to 410 incidents. This represents an enormous increase in persecution as there were only 441 incidents reported in 2016 for the entire year.”
Recent news reveals the violence continues. On July 19, in Tamil Nadu, two Christian pastors were attacked outside their church by a gang with with steel rods and a butcher’s knife. The victims identified their attackers as members of the Hindu Makkal Katchi, a wing of the Hindu extremists Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In response, police arrested a young Muslim who helped take the injured Christians to the hospital. “Police falsely framed the boy to prevent exposing the case as Hindu extremist violence on Christians,” explains Pastor Daniel Jebraj.
In Punjab, Pastor Masih’s friends similarly identified RSS members as the killers. According to fellow pastor Balwinder Kumar, RSS members warned Masih to cancel his church’s anniversary celebration. “RSS activists accused him that, ‘You Christians get paid for converting people.”
Six Indian states have laws regulating religious conversion. Most require a person to inform the local magistrate and obtain permission before switching religions. Jharkhand, in eastern India, just became the seventh state to enact a law. “It’s probable that other states such as Assam and Manipur will also adopt these anti-conversion laws,” says Friedrich. “Religious liberty is under full-scale assault in India, and the suffering people of India deserve urgent attention from both the American Christian community and the U.S. government.”
“There is impunity in India for crimes against minorities,” concludes OFMI spokesperson Arvin Valmuci. “Hindu nationalists and the State work hand-in-hand. Yet these violent nationalist groups like the RSS are linked to past terrorist activities. On several occasions, they’ve been exposed framing minority groups for their terrorism. Naturally, India’s minorities remain deeply concerned about the future of their country.”
The candlelight vigil will occur on Monday, August 28, 7pm at Vernon Street Town Square, 311 Vernon St., Roseville, CA 95678. Speakers will include Fr. Joshua Licker, Bhajan Singh, Pieter Friedrich, as well as a number of other local Christian, Sikh, and Indian minority community members.