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Sikhs honor temple victims at memorial, introduce others to the faith

| Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, 12:57 a.m.
Members of the Pittsburgh Sikh community light candles in honor of the victims lost in the Sikh Temple Milwaukee shootings during a candlelight vigil at Temple Gurdwara in Monroeville Saturday, August 11, 2012. Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review

Hundreds of people gathered beneath the golden domes of the Pittsburgh Sikh Gurdwara on Saturday to remember the victims of the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin and learn about the religion.

With an overflow crowd of 350 to 400 people from many faiths sitting on the floor of the temple, located in Monroeville, the memorial included Sikh hymns and speeches from religious and government leaders.

It ended outside with the lighting of candles.

“I believe an attack on our civil rights or a hate crime is an attack on all of us, also an attack on our nation and our principles,” said David Hickton, the U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania.

Sikh community members sought to break down isolation — and to correct mistaken impressions about their religion — following the shootings of six Sikh worshippers Aug. 5 in suburban Milwaukee. Members of the Pittsburgh congregation opened the doors to their place of worship, honoring the victims and introducing their religion to a larger audience.

Hickton, like all of the males attending the ceremony, covered his head with cloth, a requirement for entering the temple and a sign of respect.

“Just because we have a turban on our head doesn't mean we belong to the Taliban or anything,” said Chitratan Singh, secretary of the Pittsburgh congregation. “We as a community realize we need to reach out to educate our neighbors, our co-workers and the American community.”

Local Sikh leaders said the outpouring of community support has been overwhelming.

Authorities said a gunman killed six people and wounded four others before shooting himself to death at the Wisconsin temple. The shooter has been linked to white supremacist groups, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday called the murders “a hate crime.”

With golden spires rising above high white brick walls, the Pittsburgh Sikh Gurdwara sits like a fortress hidden within a Monroeville subdivision of split-level homes.

Hickton said during the memorial that law enforcement is prepared to make sure Sikhs' rights are protected.

“We are not a nation of hate,” said U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair. “We are a nation of love, and as such there is no room for hate in this room.”

The Sikh community in Western Pennsylvania includes about 70 to 100 families, and weekly services in the gurdwara at 4407 McKenzie Drive, near Boyce Park, draw about 300 people, members said.

Sikhs in the United States have been on edge since the 9/11 attacks, when many Americans associated turbans and beards with Osama bin Laden and his followers. The Wisconsin attack renewed those anxieties, said Dr. Tejinder Singh, 68, of Youngstown, a member of the Pittsburgh congregation since 1969.

As a symbol of equality, male Sikhs typically take the surname Singh while women use the name Kaur. They identify themselves by their first name and sometimes use another designation derived from their hometown or family name.

“The people who know me, they have no misconception,” Tejinder said. “But the people who don't know me might have a misconception.”

Saturday's memorial service included prayers, hymns and candle-lighting to honor the victims. It also featured a question-and-answer session about Sikhs.

Like other religions, Sikhism calls its followers to believe in one higher power, and practitioners value equality without regard to gender, race or wealth. Many practice their faith by not cutting their hair, by carrying a kirpan, or symbolic sword, and by wearing a kara, or bracelet, on their right wrist.

No matter their outward differences, Sikhs want the same things as other Americans, said Satpal Singh, 51, of Plum, who served as the Pittsburgh congregation's first spiritual leader in the 1980s.

“We are peace-loving people,” he said. “We believe in humanity, and we respect every religion.”

Andrew Conte is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7835 or andrewconte@tribweb.com.

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