NEW YORK – In an alleged hate attack, a decades-long serving priest of the Shiv Shakti Peeth temple in the Glen Oaks neighborhood of Queens, NY, Swami Harish Chander Puri, 62, was beaten mercilessly by a Caucasian male last week close to the temple premises, with the attack accompanied by rants like “this is my neighborhood.”
Puri said he was walking outside his temple in his traditional, religious garb, on 264th St. near 85th Ave. around 11 a.m. on Thursday, July 18 when a man came up behind him and began punching him and hitting him repeatedly with an umbrella, according to news reports.
The New York Daily News reported the attacker was later arrested and identified as Sergio Gouveia, 52, a resident of the neighborhood.
Gouveia struck Puri with the umbrella and punched him, cutting his nose, head, chest, arms and legs, said cops, reported the News. The scene unfolded about two blocks north of the Shiv Shakti Peeth temple, and about three blocks south of Gouveia’s home. The priest was rushed to the hospital later.
Patrol officers arrested Gouveia minutes later, and charged him with misdemeanor assault, harassment and weapon possession.
He’s not currently charged with a hate crime, but police sources said the case remains under investigation. He was arraigned Friday and released on his own recognizance.
CNN reported investigators do not believe there is a hate crime component connected at this point, quoting an unidentified NYPD spokesperson. The arrest paperwork states the dispute stemmed over the victim walking in the suspect’s neighborhood, another police department spokesperson said.
Puri told WPIX/Channel 11 the next day after the attack, on Friday, that he’s praying for his attacker.
“Sometimes people have no control. I’m in a little pain,” he said from a bed at his temple Friday night, showing a reporter his bruises, including wounds on his face.
People who attend the temple say the priest was targeted, adding his attacker screamed things like, “this is my neighborhood,” during the incident.
“He’s wearing his religious clothes just walking around the block,” said worshipper Sanjeev Jindal, reported WPIX.
“The fact that was dressed religious wear definitely made him stick out,” said another worshipper Radha Bakshi.
The attack comes a week after President Trump took to twitter to target four Democratic congresswomen, including Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, a Somali-born Muslim, prompting ‘send her back’ chants from thousands at a rally in North Carolina days later.
Puri showed remarkable composure and forgiving attitude by saying of the attacker after his release: “Sometimes people have no control.”
A report in The American Bazaar quoted Puri saying: “God bless my attacker. He is human, too. He made a mistake and we should all take it as that.”
Asked what raced through his mind, when he was confronted by attacker, the priest said, “I was, of course, surprised because incidents such as these have not happened to me ever since I made America my home back in 1988.”
But then, he also views it philosophically. “I take it as an accident,” he says. “Things happen sometimes which have no reason or meaning but one has to bear it. Sometimes we are in a car and there is a collision and an accident happens. I view it like that and would move on. One incident would not change my impression of America.”
Puri, an ascetic who renounced marital life for worship, built the temple he serves, in 1998.
Condemnation for the cowardly attack was immediate, with politicians, city officials and faith-based and advocacy groups coming out strongly against it. Some alluded to racist chanting against immigrants and minorities, at a recent rally addressed by President Trump.
The Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio tweeted his respect for the courageous priest: ‘Swami Ji Harish Chander Puri spent this weekend recovering from a brutal, despicable act of hate. Our city is praying for him. But he says he’s praying for his attacker. We can all learn from that sense of grace and love.’
New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney tweeted: ‘Glad that Hindu priest Swami Ji Harish Chander Puri is now recovering at home & that @NYPDnews has arrested the man who allegedly attacked him. We cannot & will not stand for this violence in our city. We all stand w our Hindu neighbors.’
New York Congressman Tom Suozzi too lent support with this tweet: ‘I strongly condemn the recent attack on a Hindu swami in Queens. I will continue to stand in solidarity with the Hindu community in my district and across America. May god grant Swami Ji strength, so he may fully recover.’
Senator John Liu, who led the passage of the Religious Attire bill in the New York Senate, remarked on the diversity of the Queens borough, saying in a statement: “A Hindu priest was viciously attacked in Glen Oaks this week and the perpetrator reportedly screamed at the priest, ‘Get out of my neighborhood’ due to his religious attire. Let me be clear: In New York, we embrace people of all religious faiths. In our neighborhood, our Hindu brothers and sisters are always welcome.”
Liu added: “This disturbing incident highlights the unfortunate reality that people of faith continue to be discriminated against due to their religious attire, and my legislation prohibiting discrimination on this basis awaits the governor’s signature. In these times, when hateful rhetoric against religious minorities is in the national headlines, we must send the message that New York welcomes and protects people of all faiths, creeds and colors.”
Local Congresswoman Grace Meng, representing New York’s sixth congressional district said: “I commend the NYPD [New York Police Department] for making a swift arrest in this case and I am confident that justice will be served. I stand with the Hindu community and wish the victim a full recovery.”
Terming the attack “brutal and un-American” and the act of a coward, Meng added: “People from across the globe call Queens home and we are proud to embrace this rich diversity that exists in our communities and neighborhoods.”
New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson voiced the angst of most New Yorkers, tweeting, ‘I am horrified at the attack on Swami Harish Chander Puri Ji in Queens. Hate has no place in our city. Swami Puri Ji said he will pray for his attacker. His grace is an inspiration for us.’
A Hindu advocacy group, Sadhana, released a statement on Sunday, endorsed by some local religious leaders, calling for the attack to be investigated as a hate crime.
“Bigotry and xenophobia does not distinguish between Hindus and Muslims, or black or brown skin,” the release stated. “When the US President targets immigrants and refugees and encourages chants of ‘send her back’ at rallies, this results in real harm inflicted on our communities.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations’ New York chapter also released a statement calling for a hate crime probe.
“We stand by our Hindu brethren during this hardship. No human being should suffer through an assault because of his color or faith,” CAIR-NY Executive Director Afaf Nasher said in the statement. “As hate crimes continue to break record numbers, our President revels in promoting a divisive, racist nation. The president can help our nation heal if he wanted to, but he shamefully chooses to stoke flames for his political gain.”
Deepa Iyer, a Senior Fellow at the racial justice research and advocacy organization Race Forward, weighed in on the attack, by tweeting: “Any Indian Americans who still don’t get it: we aren’t immune to hate violence. Time to stop aspiring to whiteness. Time to stop saying ‘this doesn’t affect my life.’ Time to learn, build an analysis, speak up, and take action.”
In another tweet, Iyer, a former Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), wrote: “Hateful political rhetoric fosters an environment of hate. Those who stand by or allow/enable 45 to continue his politics of hate is responsible for hate violence in this country.”
Pawan Dhingra, an Indian American author and professor at Amherst College, tweeted: “Groups like Hindus for Trump, we are looking at you. Step up and denounce this racist president.”
The South Asian Bar Association of North America also released a statement, condemning the “hateful attack.”
The former UN Deputy Secretary General and Indian Congress leader Shashi Tharoor was one of the first Indian politicians out of the blocks to condemn the attack, and pinned blame on racist rhetoric fanning the country for what transpired last Thursday in Queens: “When the US President targets immigrants and encourages chants of “send her back” at rallies, real harm is inflicted on innocents. Have received reports of a brutal attack on Swami Harish Chander Puri Ji, priest of the Shiv Shakti Peeth temple in Glen Oaks, Queens, NY.”
Tharoor added: “Swamiji was attacked on Thursday by a man who reportedly screamed, “this is my neighbourhood”. Thankfully this advocate of compassion and harmonious coexistence is recovering from his injuries. The danger of bigoted language, increasingly apparent in our India, hurts the US too.”
There was a gathering of some community members, including people from all faiths at the temple in Queens, to show solidarity with the priest, and condemn the violence, this week.
Jo Kaur, a New York-based attorney, tweeted a photo of the gathering including Sikh members from the community, saying: ‘Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Jewish & Christian communities gather tonight in Glen Oaks, Queens to support the Swami Ji – the Hindu priest – who was attacked in a possible hate crime a few days ago. WE ARE HOME. And we are outraged. And we will not let Trump’s fear or hatred divide us.”