A pastor in northern India's Punjab state was shot dead in front of his church premises two months after Hindu extremists took offense at a gospel event celebrating his church's 25th anniversary, sources said.
Pastor Sultan Masih of Temple of God was found shot dead at Peer Banda Mohalla in the Salem Tabri area of Ludhiana District on Saturday evening (July 15). He was 50.
Masih was talking by phone outside the church building when assailants on a motorbike shot him, CCTV footage recovered by the police shows. His son Anoop Masih, discovered him.
"Anoop Masih heard the noise of shooting and came out of his room on the first floor," Raj Kamal Masih, youngest brother of the pastor, told Morning Star News. "Seeing his dad lying on the road, he screamed and alerted everyone in the church building."
Pastor Balwinder Kumar told Morning Star News that at about 8:45 p.m., Pastor Masih was inside the church building when he received a call. He came outside the church gate talking on his mobile phone, and he was shot in the neck by two youths on a motorcycle, Pastor Kumar said.
Family members believe it was a premeditated attack, with the assailants calling him and telling him to go outside.
Pastor Vishnu Dev, a close friend of Pastor Masih, told Morning Star News that until recently there was no major opposition to the slain pastor, but that in May he "took a bold step" and led gospel meetings commemorating the 25th anniversary of his church's founding. Pastor Kumar, whom Pastor Masih mentored, said representatives of Hindu extremist umbrella group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) objected to the event.
"RSS activists arrived there and started accusing the pastor of forced conversions," Pastor Kumar told Morning Star News. "They came to him to quarrel twice after the event, too."
The extremists were videotaping him as they accused him of paying people to convert to Christianity, he said.
"The feud was not so very serious that he had to be killed like this," Pastor Kumar said. "The RSS activists accused him that, 'You Christians get paid for converting people. How much do you pay the converted?' They were stiff and were not listening when Pastor Masih tried to explain it is not true."
The RSS members created a nuisance, but there was no fight, and they went away, he said.
Pastor Dev said the slain clergyman had told him he was facing growing opposition.
"He and his family are serving Christ for decades and they are at peace with everyone," he said. "But four days before he was shot, I met him, and he told me, "Please pray for us, as we continue standing for Christ, many enemies are standing up against us. Please pray for us."
Doctors at Dayanand Medical College, where Pastor Masih was taken after he was shot, reported that he received three bullets: one in his chest, one close to the neck and chest, and another on his cheek close to the ear.
Pastor Masih's brother, Raj Kamal Masih, said the family was in shock.
"My brother was a peace-loving man," he said. "We don't have any enmity towards anyone. Since over two decades my brother is serving Christ."
Salem Tabria Police Inspector Amandeep Singh Brar told Morning Star News that an investigation is underway, and that he body has been sent for an autopsy.
"We have no clue regarding the attackers," he said. "We are not certain about the motive of the attackers."
Commissioner of Police R.N. Dhoke told Morning Star News that a special investigation team has been formed.
"We are working on the evidences we could collect from the family and friends of the pastor, and I'm hopeful that we will trace the accused as soon as possible," he said. "There has been no history of communal violence in Ludhiana, nothing at this moment at least. The post mortem is being done. Even the post mortem report also will serve as crucial evidence."
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, the hostile tone of his National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), against non-Hindus has emboldened Hindu extremists in several parts of the country to attack Christians, religious rights advocates say.
India ranked 15th on Christian support organization Open Doors' 2017 World Watch List of the countries where Christians experience the most persecution.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh on Sunday (July 16) expressed "shock and pain" at the killing and said he assured Masih's family of government help. He reportedly said also promised 500,000 rupees (US$7,760) to Masih's widow and a job in the police department to his son.
The chief minister said he ordered state law enforcement to track down the assailants and stem elements trying to incite communal passions.