SACRAMENTO, California, USA—”We are here to honor Pastor Sultan Masih,” said Bhajan Singh as he spoke to a group of 30 Sikhs, Christians, and others who gathered in the northern Californian city of Roseville for a candlelight vigil on the night of Monday, August 28.
Singh, the Founding Director of Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI), continued, “Why honor him? Because of his sacrifice, because of his testament to his faith and belief, he was killed. He was assassinated.”
Pastor Sultan Masih, 47, was gunned down outside his church in Ludhiana, Punjab on July 16. His murder sent shockwaves through the Punjabi Christian community. His family and colleagues reported that Masih had recently been threatened by members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group, who ordered him to stop preaching.
The Roseville vigil was led by Father Joshua Licker of Incarnation Anglican Church. “I wanted to hold this vigil, tonight, in the town where I live and worship, because Pastor Sultan was killed in the town where he lived and worshipped,” said Lickter. “I wanted to hold this vigil in the town where I encourage people to care for the poor and needy, because Pastor Sultan was killed in the town where he encouraged people to care for the poor and needy.”
Speakers linked Masih’s murder to other recent attacks on minorities by adherents of Hindutva ideology. Pieter Friedrich, an analyst of South Asian Affairs, explained that Hindutva teaches that all non-Hindus are foreign to India. “We’ve all heard about Charlottesville,” said Friedrich. “It was an attempt to reawaken a dead ideology. To reinvigorate a Nazi movement. To unfurl the Swastika banner. But we know it was an aberration. What if I told you there’s a place where a movement like this is not fringe?”
“India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is a member of the RSS,” explained Friedrich. “Hindutva is the core philosophy of the BJP, which is the political party currently ruling India. It is also the philosophy of the BJP’s parent organization, the RSS.” He described how V.D. Savarkar, who coined the term Hindutva, and M.S. Golwalkar, who was the longest-serving leader of the RSS, both praised Nazi Germany and Hitler’s treatment of the Jewish people.
“India belongs to all,” stated Gary Singh, a local community leader. “All the Indians have to know what the hell is going on in their country.”
“India touts itself as a democracy,” said Fr. Lickter. Yet, he explained, “There is a growing movement to enforce anti-conversion laws that limit freedom of speech and religion. There is an increased persecution, nationwide, of any religious minorities, be they Christian, Muslim, Sikh, or even Atheist. Attacks on non-Hindu religious leaders, like Pastor Sultan, are becoming more and more common. And they occur with the approval of those in authority: all the way to the very top Government officials.”
Commenting on the motivation behind Masih’s murder, Bhajan Singh said, “The people who assassinated him simply did it because they said, ‘We do not agree, nor do we allow, nor do we want you to believe in what you believe.’ Just for that.” He warned that attacks on minorities are spiking in India. “India has become the land where the most persecution of Christians and minorities is rampant today. India is now commonly called the lynching land.”
Friedrich described the dominance of the RSS in India. “Picture columns of thousands of men parading through your town all the time,” he said. Calling the RSS a “uniformed, paramilitary organization,” he said that it sponsored genocide against Muslims and Christians in Gujarat in 2002 and against Christians in Odisha in 2008. “The date of August 28 may be familiar to many of you. It is the night we are gathered here. It is also the 9th anniversary of the conclusion of a three-day pogrom against Christians in Kandhamal, Odisha.”
Lickter repeatedly asked participants to picture similar violence in their own town. “Imagine what it would be like if something like this happened to you, in the town where you lived and worshipped. Wouldn’t you want others to speak up to make sure this kind if thing did not happen again?” He was joined by several other Christian leaders who urged against apathy.
“Fight your apathy with deep and intense love for others, no matter their social standing, skin color, or last name,” said Tyler Dumont. “This is not an insignificant death on foreign soil, but an example of the systematic oppression of humans in India. This is not just a problem of warring ideologies, but a fight for something that is so basic and fundamental to human existence: human worth…. Pastor Sultan Masih’s blood spills over my soul, and I cannot help but to scream out.”
Dumont was echoed by Father George Snyder of St. Clare Parish, who stated, “The greatest sin of humanity is the sin of indifference.”
Brandon LaTourneau, a Catechist at St. Augustine Anglican Mission, saw light in the darkness as he quoted 3rd-century Christian writer Tertullian, who said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” LaTourneau encouraged people to follow the example of Jesus in responding to the violence in India. “I believe that it is fitting that the hate which is encountered so often in India should be responded to by the sheer love of Christian charity…. The many pastors and Christians, nuns and fathers of the faith who have given up their life for the sake of the Gospel in this distant land: they have followed after the passion of our Lord.”
As he spoke about Masih’s murder, Bhajan Singh was reminded of the execution of a 17th-century Sikh Guru. “Another brave soul, the fifth Guru, Guru Arjun, stood up and said, ‘I am with the poor, I am with the oppressed, I am with the downtrodden.’” Before Singh sang a short prayer written by Guru Arjun, he said, “Fr. Xavier, a Jesuit priest who was there preaching Christianity, documented the tortures of Guru Arjun. Through him we learned the horrific traditions of this vicious ideology that is brutalizing the Untouchables and the downtrodden.”
All of India’s minorities and Depressed Classes are jointly suffering attacks from the same source, suggested Singh. “Devious forces that want to have my way or the bullet — these forces of evil and darkness, under the guise of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism — they have come and they went after the Christians, they went after the Muslims, they went after the Untouchables, they went after the Sikhs.”
At the conclusion of the event, the group gathered together to light candles in memory of Masih. They sang a song written by a martyred Indian Christian. Then they paused for a moment of silence to remember the death of Pastor Masih and others who have recently suffered in India.
“Please educate yourself about what his happening in India right now,” urged Lickter in his final remarks. “Please regularly include the people of India in your prayers. Pray that the corrupt leaders would either repent, or be brought to justice. Pray that the caste system would be overturned, and that no one would be persecuted based on race or creed.” He added, “Let your voices be heard. Pastor Sultan cannot speak anymore, but you can speak for him. Whether you are a Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, or Atheist, you have the ability to let the voice of the oppressed be heard.”
The candlelight vigil was co-sponsored by OFMI and Incarnation Anglican Church. It was joined by members of Gurdwara Sahib Roseville, Shri Guru Ravidass Temple Rio Linda, St. Augustin Anglican Mission, St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, and St. Clare Parish.