Churchgoers in Tamil Nadu, India, are protesting local officials after police ruled the death of Pastor Gideon Periyaswamy – found hanging in the church with visible signs of beatings – a “suicide.”
Periyaswamy had faced repeated death threats from Hindu nationalists who objected to his effectiveness in converting locals to Christianity, according to the British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA), which also advocates for persecuted Christians in India.
Reports have identified Periyaswamy as both an “independent” and “Pentecostal” Christian.
BPCA quotes a member of Periyaswamy’s congregation, who told the organization that there was evidence the pastor had been tortured. “His body was later hung up to be found by parishioners, in the killers’ attempt to remove a prominent pastor and terrify his parishioners,” the witness said. The pastor’s body reportedly showed “bruises and welts” inconsistent with a simple suicide hanging, though police have branded the case as such.
Another parishioner told the advocacy group that, if the act was meant to scare Christians in the area, it had succeeded. “This attack has terrified our church parishioners to their core, the death is a brutal murder of a devout Christian Pastor who was more vulnerable because he was alone and trusting of people,” the unidentified believer said. “Pastor Gideon was well loved by all and we will all shed many tears for our lost brother.”
The Catholic news outlet UCA News estimates that 2,000 Christians organized to protest the treatment of Periyaswamy’s death on Monday, blocking a major local road and “demanding the arrest of four people they suspect were behind the death of a Christian pastor who was found hanging inside his home.” The suspects, the report claims, are “high-caste Hindus.”
The protesters are also reportedly seeking for the government to place a private, independent doctor on their autopsy team to determine the cause of death, arguing that government officials have a stake in the death being ruled a suicide.
“Not a single Sunday service in the past six months passed off peacefully without disturbance,” fellow Pastor Immanuel Prabhakaran told the outlet, explaining that the church had been the target of multiple acts of vandalism and Periyaswamy faced death threats for “polluting” the area with Christianity.
Police have reportedly told protesters that “if the four [suspects] are arrested, 10,000 will come out on the streets and there will be communal violence,” he said.
AsiaNews, an official Roman Catholic news agency, cites local Christians who state that the Hindu residents who had reportedly intimidated the pastor were “not happy with the increase of the Christian faithful.” Periyaswamy had reportedly experienced much success in preaching to lower-caste locals who converted in larger numbers. Periyaswamy himself was born Hindu and converted 25 years ago. He reportedly led his congregation for 12 years.
“Intolerant local police are shamefully choosing to ignore tangible evidence,” Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the BPCA, said in a statement, adding:
The current situation is a slow regression towards a similar type of anarchy to the one that has palpably consumed Pakistan. I pray that the Modi regime loses the next election permitting a more egalitarian government to correct the perilous trajectory that BJP are hurtling towards.
Mob attacks, lynchings, public burnings, group rapes, abductions, and forced conversions and marriages against Christians are common in Pakistan, where the government rarely intervenes to punish the attackers and, instead, targets Christians accused of “blasphemy,” who often have clear evidence against those claims.
Christian advocacy groups have accused the Indian government of taking a soft stance against increasingly violent Hindu nationalists groups, who often target Christians.
The NGO Open Doors, which monitors global trends in Christian persecution, estimates that nearly 64 million Christians call India home. Their report on the state of persecution in 2017 notes, however, that despite this large number, Christians have experienced a spike in attacks and intimidation from Hindu nationalists.
“Because Hindu radicals view Christians as outsiders, they experience increased persecution,” the Open Doors report explains. “These radicals are intent on cleansing the nation of both Islam and Christianity, employing violence to this end. The government continues to look away when religious minorities are attacked, indicating violence may only increase.”
In addition to killing, torturing, and harassing Christian leaders, Open Doors notes that Hindu nationalists use “campaigns known as Ghar Wapsi (or “homecoming”) … to get Christians to denounce their newfound faith.”
“These converts are often physically assaulted and sometimes killed for refusing to deny Christ,” the group notes.