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Published: Tuesday, 8/7/2012

Local Sikhs saddened by shooting

Wisconsin attack stirs concern violence could strike elsewhere

BY JESSICA SHOR
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Sunday's shooting at a Sikh temple south of Milwaukee has saddened and angered Toledo-area Sikhs, but it does not come as a total surprise, several Sikhs said.

Though their religion emphasizes service to others and social justice, local Sikh leaders say the turbans and beards worn by orthodox men often lead outsiders to confuse them for Muslims, which has made them targets in the past.

Not that any religious group should be the object of such hate, emphasized Balsharan Singh, a Sikh who has lived in the Toledo area since he came to the United States from India 25 years ago.

RELATED ARTICLE: Police ID attacker at Sikh temple

"It's unfortunate that this happened, because this madness can't be blamed on one person or one religion," he said. "Even if it wasn't Sikhs -- if it was Muslims, or a black church, or a white church -- that doesn't make it right."

The number of Sikhs in the greater Toledo area is small, estimated at 50 families, and they do not have their own gurdwara, as Sikh temples are known. The community is tight-knit, though, meeting at the University of Toledo on the first Saturday of every month for the same type of religious service that ended in tragedy on Sunday. That closeness means that the impact of the attack -- in which a shooter believed to be a white supremacist killed six worshipers and injured three others -- hit close to home.

Mr. Singh said he remained on a conference call with his siblings and cousins late into the night Sunday.

"We were all crying," he said. "Nobody knew anybody who died there, but it could have been any of us."

Mr. Singh said that although he identifies as an American first and Sikh second, and does not wear the beard or turban that other members of his faith do, he has received offensive and threatening comments, especially in the months following 9/11. And while he described Toledo as a friendly city, he said its lack of religious diversity -- at least relative to larger cities like Detroit or New York -- sometimes worries him.

"There's always a chance that this could happen anywhere, especially in places with smaller populations," he said. "I could see something like this happening in a small city like the one we're sitting in. To see it happen in a bigger city [would be] surprising."

Members of other religious communities in the Toledo area describe local Sikhs as a giving and welcoming group of people, eager to reach out despite their small numbers.

"We have a pretty warm relationship," said Judy Trautman, co-chairman of the Multifaith Council of Northwest Ohio. "We've been working for 11-plus years building relationships with religious communities, and Sikhs have been a part of it since almost the beginning. It's a small community locally, but we always have attendance from some families."

Sgt. Joe Heffernan, spokesman for the Toledo Police Department, said he did not think a threat exists for Sikhs in Toledo and described Sunday's shootings as an "isolated incident."

Contact Jessica Shor at: jshor@theblade.com or 419-724-6516.



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