'Illegal Preaching': US Missionary Faces Deportation Or Jail After Attack

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - An American missionary recovering in an Indian hospital after an attack by suspected Hindu militants has been ordered to leave the country within a week for allegedly breaking visa rules by preaching.

But before he can do so, he may instead find himself in court answering criminal charges that could see him jailed for three years. A militant Hindu group has formally accused him of denigrating adherents of India's majority religion.

Back in the U.S., Joseph Cooper's pastor said Tuesday the charges against the missionary were absurd.

Cooper, 67, was attacked by about 10 men in the state of Kerala last week and sustained a deep wound to the palm of one hand.

Kerala police have arrested nine activists of the militant Hindu group RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteer Corps) in connection with the assault.

Cooper and several others also hurt in the assault have been receiving treatment at the Kerala Institute of Medical Sciences Hospital, where the missionary received the instruction to leave India.

"The order has been personally served to Cooper at the hospital where he is recuperating after suffering injury in the attack, and acknowledgement [of its receipt] received," police district Superintendent T.K. Vinod Kumar said.

Kumar said Cooper had been in India on a tourist visa, but he was found to have "violated visa norms" by taking part in religious activities. He had issued the order in his capacity as a Foreigners' Registration Officer.

According to police sources, Cooper had been traveling on a multiple entry tourist visa issued by the Ministry of External Affairs in 2000.

They said a foreigner traveling on a tourist or student visa was not permitted under Indian regulations to speak at religious meetings.

Cooper wasn't immediately available for comment, but Benson Sam, a pastor and friend who was one of those attacked last week, said by phone that the American was planning to leave "as early as possible."

Asked about the claims that Cooper had been preaching illegally, Sam said: "That is totally wrong."

He accused the radical Hindu group suspected of having carried out the attack of being behind the move to kick him out of the country.

"They are trying to protect their people."

The RSS and affiliated militant Hindu groups are bitterly opposed to Christian missionaries working in India.

They maintain that Christians are luring poor Hindus into converting by offering them food, education or other incentives. Many missionaries run schools, dispensaries and old age homes in poor areas of India.

Although the attack on Cooper sparked widespread condemnation, an RSS sister organization, the VHP (Vishawa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council), demanded that the missionary be charged with breaking visa regulations.

"Cooper should not be allowed to leave the country as he had violated the existing visa rules and hurt the feelings of Hindus by his alleged provocative speeches," the group's Kerala secretary, Kummanam Rajasekharan, said in a statement Tuesday.

He criticized the police for arresting RSS activists instead of prosecuting Cooper.

In an apparent bid to pre-empt his departure, the VHP filed a complaint with the police, accusing Cooper of denigrating Hindus in his sermons.

A court in the Kerala capital, Trivandrum, is reportedly due to decide Wednesday whether the missionary should face trial.

'A Love For Indians'

Sam said Cooper was a former professional parachute jumper who began missionary work in the early 1970s was currently on his 11th visit to India.

In his home city of New Castle, Pennsylvania, Pastor Bill Beck of Barnstone Ministries said Tuesday that the Pentecostal and non-denominational church was deeply concerned about Cooper's safety and had been praying ardently for him since the attack.

He said Cooper was deeply involved in the church's missions ministry, including work among Native Americans, but his main focus was India.

"God has given him a love for these people."

Beck said the allegations that the missionary had denigrated Hindus were without doubt untrue. "That's not what he does. He preaches the love of Jesus Christ, not the sword."

Beck described Cooper - at 6'5" and 300 pounds - as "a gentle giant, big physically and spiritually."

When he was attacked, he said, rather than retaliate - which he could easily have done - he had instead "sung songs of praise to God and was praying for those who were abusing him. Because that's who he is.

"I know this man, I know his heart. He's a man who loves God and loves people, and I'm proud to be his friend."

Members of India's 23 million-strong Christian minority have reported ill treatment at the hands of Hindu militant groups since the Hindu nationalist BJP government came to power.

Fourteen men are on trial for the murders of an Australian missionary and his two young sons, burnt to death by a mob in 1999 as they slept in their car.

See Earlier Story
US Missionary Recovering After Attack In India (16 Jan. 2003)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow