(RNS) – Faith leaders are calling on New York City police to launch a hate crime investigation into a violent attack on a Hindu priest near his temple in Queens.
Swami Harish Chander Puri, the 62-year-old priest who leads the Shiv Shakti Peeth temple in the Glen Oaks neighborhood, said he was walking outside his temple the morning of July 18 when a man came up behind him and began hitting him repeatedly.
Locals said they believe the priest was targeted because of his religious clothing and that the attacker screamed "this is my neighborhood" during the assault, according to media reports and a letter published by Sadhana, a progressive Hindu movement based in New York City.
“The remarks uttered by Swami Puri Ji’s attacker are a blatant example of hate speech,” the letter reads. “Thus, we urge the NYPD to investigate this matter as a hate crime.”
An NYPD spokesperson told media that investigators do not currently believe there is a hate crime component to the attack.
Police arrested 52-year-old Sergio Gouveia in connection with the attack and have charged him with assault, harassment and criminal possession of a weapon. Puri has since been released from hospitalization and is recovering from the cuts and bruises on his head, nose, chest, arms and legs.
Interfaith activists linked the attack to President Donald Trump’s recent inflammatory rhetoric against four democratic Congresswomen of color, suggesting that they are un-American.
“Bigotry and xenophobia does not distinguish between Hindus and Muslims, or black or brown skin,” the letter said. “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.”
Sadhana’s letter was also signed by community activists and faith leaders in New York and beyond, including leaders of the Shri Shakti Mariammaa Temple, the Shakti Mission, American Baptist Churches, Park Avenue Christian Church, Trinity Lutheran Church, Ecclesia Ministries of New York, Auburn Seminary, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Union Theological Society, United Clergy Task Force and other groups.
Afaf Nashar, executive director at Council on American-Islamic Relations' New York chapter, signed the letter.
“No human being should suffer through an assault because of his color or faith,” he said. “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."
The letter also noted that Queens was named America’s most diverse large county earlier this month, according to a report of 2017 census data produced by Axios.
“This type of brutal act is un-American, and the person who committed this heinous crime is a coward,” said U.S. Rep. Grace Meng, D-Queens, in a statement expressing solidarity with local Hindus. “People from across the globe call Queens home, and we are proud to embrace this rich diversity that exists in our communities and neighborhoods.”