Missionary slashed in India attack is back home in New Castle

Cooper thinking about going back to work
Post-Gazette, Jan. 29, 2003
By Jack Kelly, Post-Gazette National Security Writer

He’s finally back home in New Castle, his hand is healing nicely from the machete cut, and Joseph William Cooper is thinking about going back to India to continue his missionary work.

“I was ordered out of Dodge, but I still have a valid visa,” said Cooper, 67, a bishop in a Pentecostal fellowship headquartered in Marietta, Ohio, called the New Jerusalem Church. “If the Lord wants me to return, I’ll go back.”

Cooper and seven Indian Christians were attacked by a mob wielding clubs and machetes as they left a church service two weeks ago on the outskirts of Trivandrum, capital of the southern Indian state of Kerala.

Cooper and his companions — Indian pastor Benson Sam, Sam’s wife and three children, and two gospel singers — were returning to their cars after an evening service.

“We were walking up a hill,” Cooper said. “It was pretty steep. I let myself fall to the rear. Suddenly, everybody passed me going lickety split in the other direction.

“There were these people chasing after them. I raised my hand and said: ‘Stop. What do you want?’ I didn’t see the machete, but it sure sliced up my hand,” he said.

Another assailant knocked the evangelist’s feet out from under him with a bamboo pole about three feet long. Cooper fell to the ground, and the others began pummeling him with their clubs.

“Hearing my shouts, Benson broke through their circle and dove on my back,” Cooper said. “He took a lot of blows that were meant for me.”

Cooper and Benson Sam were saved when most of the roughly 40 people who attended the church gathering raced up the hill and chased the mob, which Cooper said numbered 10 or 12.

Police have made 10 arrests. All are members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization.

“We’d call the RSS the Ku Klux Klan over here,” Cooper said. “Their function is to keep the people oppressed.”

After spending a week in the hospital, Cooper was ordered by the Kerala state police to leave the country. He had been accused by a local RSS leader of illegal preaching. A 1956 law forbids those who enter India on tourist visas from engaging in “conversion activities.” Cooper arrived home Thursday.

Attacks on Christians and Muslims in India have surged since the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won power in 1998. “What is especially worrying about these attacks is that the police are not prosecuting the attackers but are prosecuting their victims,” said Smita Narula of Human Rights Watch. Cooper’s deportation is just the most recent example, she said.

But Cooper said the Kerala state police treated him fairly, and may have ordered him out of the country swiftly to prevent the national government from yanking his multiple-entry visa.

“The state police investigator was very firm,” Cooper recalled. “He asked me hard questions. Then he put his arm around me and said: ‘Don’t worry about a thing. We’re taking care of it.’ “

A local judge promptly dismissed a criminal complaint filed by the RSS against him, Cooper said.

Sectarian violence has been rare in Kerala, long regarded as one of the most tolerant of Indian states. Overall, India’s 1.1 billion people are about 81 percent Hindu, 12 percent Muslim, 2.3 percent Christian and 2 percent Sikh. But in Kerala, the population is about half Hindu, with the other half split equally between Muslims and Christians.

There have been Christians in India for 2,000 years. According to legend, the Gospel was brought to India by the Apostle Thomas.

“When [Portuguese explorer] Vasco de Gama got there in 1498, he found 100 cities of Christians in India,” Cooper said. Relations between Hindus and Christians were fairly cordial for most of those 2,000 years.

“Part of the Hindu tradition is not to be offended by other groups,” Cooper said. “But the RSS is sure offended.”

The RSS accused Cooper of insulting Hindu deities, and of attempting to convert Hindus. Cooper said neither charge is true.

Cooper agreed with the assessment of Laurence Glasco, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who said the motivations of the Hindu nationalists are as much economic as religious.

Most Christian converts in India come from members of the lowest caste, the “Untouchables,” now called Dalits, Glasco said. Dalits are attracted to Christianity because it does not blame them for their condition in life, and offers them a way out of it, he said.

An account making the rounds of Hindu nationalist Web sites alleges that Cooper was only an incidental victim of the attack. The real target, this account says, was Benson Sam, who was attacked not for being a Christian but because he allegedly had molested a Dalit girl.

This story is false, Cooper said. The truth, he said, is that the girl, a member of the highest Brahmin caste, converted to Christianity and was disowned by her family. She subsequently reverted back to Hinduism and was reconciled to her family. She then made charges of rape against Benson Sam, his father, P.K. Sam, and two other Christian leaders. But Benson Sam was in Canton, Ohio, when the alleged rape was supposed to have occurred, so police dismissed the complaint against him, Cooper said.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday January 29, 2003.
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