updated 5/25/2009 11:16:43 PM ET 2009-05-26T03:16:43

Investigators believe a sermon at a Sikh temple in Austria set off an attack that saw worshippers use a frying pan and microphone stands to fend off knife- and gun-wielding assailants who fatally shot a cleric.

The death sparked riots in several northern Indian cities.

Witnesses said the Vienna temple attended by lower-caste Sikhs was attacked Sunday by Sikhs from a higher caste who accused one or both of the preachers of being disrespectful of the religion's Holy Book.

"We're assuming that the content of the sermon was the trigger," Werner Autericky, a high-ranking Vienna police official, told the Austria Press Agency Monday, adding that the motive was not definitive.

The attack set off a brawl that wounded 16. Police said they found a 9 mm pistol and several knives at the scene. It was unclear if some were kirpans — ceremonial daggers that may legally be worn by Sikhs in Austria.

Two preachers — identified by Indian diplomats as Sant Niranjan Das and Sant Rama Nand — underwent operations for gunshot wounds and Nand died around midnight. The two clerics were visiting Vienna from India, police said, adding they had held services in the same temple on numerous occasions over the past few years without any reported problems.

An Indian diplomat familiar with the incident said Niranjan was in stable condition and "cheerful." The diplomat said the two men were leaders of a religious community that follows Guru Ravidas and were traveling through Europe to meet with believers. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Six suspects in custody
Six suspects are in custody and four have been identified as asylum-seekers who have lived in Austria for some time, police spokesman Michael Takacs said.

In India, hundreds of people responded to the shooting by defying a curfew and army patrols, attacking police stations and setting fire to the car of a senior officer and several trains. In two places, police opened fire on mobs, wounding at least four people, said senior police officer Khubi Ram. One person was killed as troops opened fire on an angry mob that attacked a police station in Lambran village.

The violence in India centered on the northern town of Jalandhar, a stronghold of the Dera Sach Khand, a Sikh sect comprised of mainly "untouchables," or Dalits.

Worshipper Mohnder Ram, 72, who has lived in Vienna for decades, said the temple that was attacked had been attended by followers of Shri Guru Ravidas, the 14th-century founder of the sect. Witnesses said the group of bearded and turbaned men attacked the preachers as they led several hundred worshippers in prayer. Followers moved to defend their leaders and, according to police, even used a pan and microphone stands to fight the perpetrators.

‘It was like war’
"I heard four to five shots" in the temple, said Ram. "People started screaming, children were crying as they ran out. It was like war. There was lots of blood everywhere."

The temple 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.

The scene was "like a battlefield," Takacs said.

Nearby resident Bimla Lalka said she saw seven or eight men with long beards and dark blue and orange turbans fleeing the building.

Roughly 3,000 Sikhs live in Austria and about half hold Austrian citizenship. Sikhs make up less than 2 percent of India's nearly 1.2 billion people.

Caste discrimination has been outlawed in India for more than a half century, and a quota system was established with the aim of giving Dalits a fair share of government jobs and places in schools. But their plight remains dire, living in poverty and kept down by ancient prejudice and caste-based politics.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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