Sikh killings worry Monroeville temple

Security fears contrast years of mostly kindness, tolerance

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As a gunman walked into the Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee and started firing, killing six and sending many running for shelter in bathrooms and prayer halls, morning services in the Gurdwara Sikh temple in Monroeville had just finished. It was not until lunch about an hour later that the news of the Oak Creek carnage began to trickle in, first through smartphones and then in frantic calls from relatives in India and elsewhere.

Reactions varied. There was grief, compounded by the sense that the victims in Oak Creek comprised part of an extended family that includes all Sikhs. There was shock. Why would someone do this? And who? Finally, there was a recognition that this could also happen here. Within a day, Gurdwara priest Sucha Singh asked Monroeville police to increase security outside the temple, with extra vigilance on Sundays.

Mr. Singh said this is the first time the Gurdwara temple has increased security in roughly three decades.

"We've never had big concerns about safety before," he said. "In Monroeville and Pittsburgh, people understand us and like us. We are peace-loving people, so we were stunned and saddened to hear of Sunday's events."

With few exceptions, the temple has co-existed peacefully with the surrounding neighborhood. There were two incidents of vandalism about four or five years ago, Mr. Singh said, in which local teenagers broke into the temple, scattered the ceremonial food offerings across the floor and stole some sacred artifacts. But he shrugged these off as local kids causing trouble, little cause for concern.

Older congregants also remember the temple's shaky first years, when religious leaders faced angry neighbors at zoning and building permit meetings who did not want to live too near a Sikh temple. Congregation member Gurdial Singh Mehta, 78, recalled that one local councilman called him and his fellow Sikhs "weirdos" after a zoning meeting. Another neighbor told Mr. Mehta he didn't want to live near "a non-Christian church."

But in the years since local officials granted the Sikhs license to build their temple, he said, the neighbors have shown them mostly kindness and tolerance -- and most Sikhs in the area have felt safe and at home.

"We live in a very nice community," said Harish Minhas, Mr. Singh's niece, who moved to Monroeville from India last year. "Whenever we talk to people and introduce ourselves as Sikhs, they are very friendly to us. Everybody loves us."

Several congregation members still said they have faced various types of discrimination and bullying over the years, especially after 9/11, because Sikhs -- who wear turbans and beards -- are easily confused for Muslims. Mr. Singh said the worst such instance was about six years ago, when he was accosted by a man outside the Monroeville Kmart who turned to him and said, "I want to kill that Osama."

Amar Singh Mehta, Mr. Mehta's son, remembered a similar story.

"Once I was at a Pitt Panther football game, and someone said to me, 'You're not welcome here,' " he said. "Usually, I keep walking and get past it. But it was a football game and he had upset me. He said, 'Everyone here hates you.' So I turned to another passerby and asked, 'Bro, do you hate me?' And he said, 'No, I love you,' and gave me a high-five. I didn't need to say anything else."

There are about 200 Sikh families in the Tri-state area, which includes southwestern Pennsylvania, southeastern Ohio and northwest Virginia, and about 314,000 Sikhs in the United States. The religion, founded in the 15th century in South Asia, is monotheistic and preaches equality regardless of caste, creed and gender.

Turbans, the distinctive headgear worn by Sikhs, are meant to symbolize honor, self-respect, courage and spirituality. They are seen as integral to the Sikh identity.

In April, Joseph Crowley, co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Indians and Indian-Americans sent a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder that asked the FBI to collect information about hate crimes against Sikhs. In his letter, he cited evidence of hate crimes in the past year -- the beating of a Sikh man in New York, the vandalism at a Sikh temple in Michigan and the killing of two Sikh men in Sacramento.

Amar Singh Mehta said he hopes that in the wake of the violence in Wisconsin, people become more educated about Sikhs and Sikhism. He believes this type of education is the best way to stop more violence against them.

"We are not Muslims, and we are not Hindus, though no religion should be the target of hate," he said. "The ideals of Sikhism are actually very close to the ideals of this country. Our forefathers said that all men are created equal, and that's what we believe, too. If more Americans knew this, there would be far fewer hate crimes."

Law enforcement officials announced Monday that the gunman had been identified as Wade M. Page, 40, a U.S. Army veteran with ties to the white supremacist movement. The victims are Sita Singh, 41; Ranjit Singh, 49; Satwant Singh Kaleka, 65; Prakash Singh, 39; Paramjit Kaur, 41; and Suveg Singh, 84.

lifestyle - neigh_east

Nikita Lalwani: or 412-263-1280. First Published August 7, 2012 4:00 AM


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