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“They threatened the pastor, ‘How dare you set up a church in our locality? This area is of upper castes. Stop running church here’”, a church leader in the region explains.
The body of a pastor in southern India was found hung from the thatched roof of his house early Saturday morning (Jan. 20), a week after he complained to police about opposition from Hindu extremists, sources said.
Congregation members said they found the body of pastor Gideon Periyaswamy of Maknayeem Church hanging from a rope in his one-room house beside the church building in Adayachery village, Kanchipuram District (India), but that his knees were bent stiff, as if others had placed him in the noose after his death. He was 43.
A convert from Hinduism 25 years ago, Pastor Periyaswamy was single and served as pastor in Adayachery for more than 12 years, his close friend, pastor Azariah Reuben, told Morning Star News.
“The local Hindus were not happy with growing Christianity,” Pastor Reuben said. “They had several times tried to stop the ministry.”
At pastors’ meetings and on other occasions, Pastor Periyaswamy spoke of Hindu hostilities to his church services and requested prayer, he said. Pastor Reuben said that Pastor Periyaswamy once remarked, “I have no problem – if needed, if the Lord permits it, I would die as martyr for Christ, but the ministry should not stop.”
A deputy superintendent of police identified only as Rajendiran told Morning Star News that a week before his death, Pastor Periyaswamy had filed a complaint with police “on some village people troubling him.”
“Our investigation was underway, and now we found him dead,” Rajendiran said.
A congregation member identified only as Indira said that the previous Sunday (Jan. 14), Hindu extremists were upset about a car sitting outside the area designated for church parking.
“They pelted stones at the car, and the pastor made an announcement requesting the church members to park their vehicles within the church premises only,” she said.
For the past six months, the local hard-line Hindus have harassed the pastor every Sunday, Indira said.
“When they see the pastor, they laugh, giggle and crack humiliating jokes at him,” she said. “They would always look for something to pick a fight over. But pastor told us, ‘We should be at peace with our neighbors – let’s not give them a reason to fight.”’
Last year local Hindu extremists kicked and beat him, Regina said. She and Indira found the pastor’s body.
CHURCH MEMBERS FOUND THE BODY
“On Friday night [Jan. 19], our pastor visited the church families,” Regina said. “He told me and other sisters that there will be a fasting prayer on Saturday morning at 10 a.m., so please come early and clean the church hall.”
When they arrived on Saturday morning at 5 a.m. to clean the church building, they were surprised to find the pastor’s room bolted shut.
“We opened the door and were shocked to find Pastor Gideon Periyaswamy hanged,” Regina said. “A rope was fastened to the roof and tied to pastor’s neck, but his knees were slumped towards the ground. When the police came to unhang the pastor’s body, we saw a cut in his neck area. There was blood clotted.”
Police initially refused to file a complaint from congregation members, sources said. After church members and pastors from neighboring villages blocked a road in protest, his body was transported to Chengalpattu Government Hospital, where it has been placed in the hospital mortuary, Pastor Reuben told Morning Star News.
PRESSURE TO CLOSE THE CHURCH
The Vanniyar community and other upper castes in Adayachery hate the lower caste of the pastor and his congregation, said pastor Immanuel Prabhakaran, who worked with the deceased leader of the church, which belongs to the Synod of Pentecostal Churches.
“They threatened the pastor, ‘How dare you set up a church in our locality? This area is of upper castes. Stop running church here. Stop inviting schedule castes to our area. You leave this village else we will make life difficult for you,’” Pastor Prabhakaran told Morning Star News.
Church members suspect Vanniyar and village leaders were behind the killing of the pastor.
“These people had cut the church’s water supply by disconnecting the pipeline,” said one church member.
Originally Pastor Periyaswamy had led the congregation as a house church, and before the current structure was built, they met in a shed. In 2016, area Hindu nationalists demolished the shed, church members told Morning Star News.
“We filed a complaint at Kalapakkam police station, but no action was taken,” one member said.
Pastor Periyaswamy’s cousin, Shiv Shankar, told Morning Star News that Pastor Periyaswamy was involved in many charity activities and led a simple life.
“We come from a Hindu family, and he was the first to convert to Christianity at the age of 18,” Shankar said. “He boldly professed his faith. I can never think my cousin would commit suicide. He was murdered.”
Two weeks ago, he invited all relatives to the church’s anniversary celebrations, he said.
“He was elated. My other cousin and her husband, Gideon’s sister and brother-in-law, gifted him a gold ring,” Shankar said. “He refused, but they forced him to accept. He did. Even that ring is missing.”
Nehemiah Christie, director of legislations and regulations for the Synod of Pentecostal Churches, urged police officials and government to conduct a fair investigation.
“There is urgent need for an autopsy in the presence of a judicial magistrate,” Christie told Morning Star News. “Pastor Gideon Periyaswamy’s death can’t be ruled out as suicide.”
The deputy inspector general of police of Kanchipuram Range, identified only as Thenmozhi, told Morning Star News that officers would carry out a fair investigation.
“There is no doubt in that – we will ensure a fair investigation,” Thenmozhi said. “If there is any troublemaker involved, we are looking at all angles regarding this. We ensure fair investigation. The post-mortem begins once the enquiry starts. Let the family and relatives come out with the facts they have; once we are given the witnesses statements and some supportive material, we will ensure post-mortem.”
VIOLENCE AGAINST CHRISTIANS IN INDIA
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 11th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of countries where Christians experience the most persecution, up from 15th the previous year, and ahead of Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Egypt.