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7/10/07 GUDIVADA, Andhra Pradesh (Compass Direct News) – Family and friends of Pastor Goda Israel, whose body was found in a pond in Andhra Pradesh in February, say they are still convinced that he was murdered, despite police claims of “accidental drowning.”

The body of the 29-year-old pastor was found on February 20 in a fishpond near his home in Pedapallparru village, Gudivada. (See Compass Direct News, “Young Pastor Found Dead in Andhra Pradesh, India,” February 27.)

A source in the Rajasthan state-based Emmanuel Mission International (EMI), with whom the slain pastor’s brother works, had told Compass that stab wounds were found on Israel’s body. Police would not confirm this at the time, saying they were still waiting for the results of an autopsy.

Police Sub-Inspector P. Venkateswarlu (previously misidentified as Venakt Rao), however, told Compass by phone in February that a case had been filed under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with “a certain case of murder, based on visible injuries.”

The president of Gudivara Pastors’ Fellowship, pastor Appikatla Joshua, told Compass he had “personally seen the body with wounds on the back.” Local villagers also reported seeing wounds on the body – although they did not specifically describe them as stab wounds. A photo of the pastor’s battered, wounded body being dragged from the mud was printed in a local Christian newspaper; Joshua also provided photos of the body with visible wounds to police.

Strangely, police have yet to interview any of the witnesses who saw the body being removed from the pond, local villagers told Compass in late June.

Police now say that Israel drowned accidentally while relieving himself near the fishpond. Sub-Inspector Venkateswarlu told Compass three weeks ago that the autopsy report gave probable cause of death by drowning and that “no injuries” were noted on the body.

He said the case subsequently had been filed under Section 174 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which deals with “suspicious death in which murder is a possible motive.”

Another official told Compass that the police had sent some organs of Israel’s body for chemical examination to confirm whether he had in fact drowned to death. The report was awaited at press time.

Accident Doubted

Israel’s family, church members and neighbors refuse to accept the police version of events.

When Compass spoke a few weeks ago to Israel’s widow Aruna, his brother Pastor G. Prashant Raj, his mother Rajamma, and several church members, they all reported seeing obvious wounds on the body.

“Also, when he left home he was wearing a shirt with a vest, pants and shoes – but when the body was found, he only had the pants on,” a family member said. The family believes this almost certainly rules out the possibility of Israel drowning while relieving himself.

Relatives said Israel went missing on February 17, four days before the body was found, whereas at least one policeman has claimed Israel went missing on February 19 and was found the following day.

The family reported Israel’s disappearance almost immediately, but police refused to search for him.

At press time, local people said police still had not contacted any other family member or villager to gather facts about the case.

But Israel’s wife Aruna told Compass that a local government official, Narsimha Rao, had offered compensation of 50,000 rupees (US$1,237) if she agreed to accept the death as an accidental drowning.

Convinced that her husband was murdered and fearing retaliation, Israel’s wife has rejected efforts of the Gudivara Pastors’ Fellowship to press ahead with a murder case.

Suspects, Motives

Both family and church members said they did not believe Hindu extremists were responsible for Israel’s death.

“There was no tension between Hindus and Christians in the village, although earlier on some extremists in a nearby village had threatened Israel,” said Israel’s brother Prashant. “In fact everyone, including Hindus in the village, loved Israel.”

The villagers were stunned by Israel’s death. Initially they began to suspect leaders of the New Apostolic Church Ministry (NACM), which manages the church Israel had inherited after his own father’s death. Some villagers said other senior members of the NACM were offended as they had hoped to take his father’s position, but police found no basis for suspecting the leaders of murder.

Israel went missing on February 17; he was due to be ordained by the NACM on February 23.

“In fact, when the NACM leaders came to visit the family about a week after he died, some villagers caught them and handed them over to the police as possible suspects,” a church member told Compass. “But the police did not find any truth in the allegations.”

Later, both family and local residents suspected – and continue to do so – a distant relative of Israel, Gummadi Paulraj, who had come to Israel’s home to take him to the fishpond on February 17.

Paulraj, an agricultural laborer, lives in the same village but attends the Church of South India in a neighboring hamlet.

“When Paulraj came back alone on February 17, we asked where Israel was,” a family member told Compass. “He told us Israel had gone to pray and would return later. But Israel never came home.”

In May, Israel’s family wrote a letter to the police, naming Paulraj as a suspect. Police arrested and detained Paulraj for three days before releasing him without charges.

While the circumstances of Israel’s death remain shrouded, Aruna and her two children now struggle to make ends meet, along with Israel’s mother, who is battling cancer. The family told Compass they have lost hope of a fair and unbiased investigation.

Israel was previously reported to be a graduate of the Emmanuel Bible Institute, run by Emmanuel Mission International in Kota, Rajasthan, but Compass has since discovered that it was Israel’s brother Prashant who attended the Institute. Israel attended only a simple training session run by EMI in his home state of Andhra Pradesh.