Austria: brawl in Sikh temple leaves preacher dead

Witnesses said perpetrators were fundamentalist Sikhs from higher caste, who accused preachers of being disrespectful of the Holy Book.

austrian policeman 248.89 ap (photo credit: AP)
austrian policeman 248.89 ap
(photo credit: AP)
A group of Sikh men armed with knives and a handgun attacked a temple in Vienna, touching off a brawl with worshippers that left one preacher dead and 15 others wounded, police said Monday. Witnesses said the group of bearded and turbaned men raided the temple as the religious leaders were guiding several hundred worshippers in prayer Sunday. Followers moved to defend the preachers. "I heard four to five shots" in the temple, said worshipper Mohnder Ram, 72. "People started screaming, children were crying as they ran out. It was like war. There was lots of blood everywhere." The preachers - identified by Indian diplomats as Niranjan Das and Sant Rama Nand - underwent operations for gunshot wounds, but Nand died early Tuesday, according to a police official who declined to identify himself on the telephone, in line with Austrian custom. Six suspects are in custody, including four wounded and in serious condition, police spokesman Michael Takacs said, adding that more may be detained. The scene was "like a battlefield," Takacs said. The most serious wounds were caused by gunshots to the abdomen and head. Witnesses said the perpetrators were fundamentalist Sikhs from a higher caste, who accused one or both of the preachers of being disrespectful of the Holy Book. Indian news reports said the attackers were incensed that one of the preachers was given a ceremonial shawl considered a high Sikh honor. Ram, who has lived in Vienna for decades, blamed the attack on followers of Shri Guru Ravidas, a 14th-century founder of a Sikh sect called Dera Sach Khand comprised of mainly "untouchables," or Dalits. Several hours after the Vienna clash, fighting in India broke out between mainstream Sikhs and followers of the guru in the northern city of Jalandhar, in what locals called a reaction to the melee in Austria. Jalandhar police official Sanjiv Kalra said protesters set fire to several vehicles and erected roadblocks across the city. There are several such Deras across the northern state of Punjab, but violent clashes are rare. Sikhs make up less than 2 percent of India's 1.1 billion people. Vienna police were investigating whether some of the temple worshippers had been armed as well as the attackers. It was not clear whether some of the weapons used were kirpans - ceremonial daggers that may legally be worn by Sikhs in Austria. Witnesses described a scene of chaos in the temple, which is housed in a residential building of the working-class neighborhood of Vienna-Rudolfsheim. Ram said about 400 people were at the service when the fight broke out; police put the number at between 150 and 300. "Everybody was praying, and then it started with knives and a pistol," said Nermal Singh, his shirt bloodied and his head bandaged from what he said was a knife wound. Nearby resident Bimla Lalka said she saw seven or eight men with long beards and dark blue and orange turbans fleeing the building. Those injured were of Indian origin and aged between 30 and 50, said Bernhard Segall of Vienna medical services. Takacs denied reports that the temple leaders had asked for police protection after telephone threats last week, saying no such requests were received.