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updated: 8/5/2012 7:28 PM

Local Sikh temples concerned for worshipers' safety

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  • Balwant Singh Hansra, a member of the Gurudawara Sikh Religious Society in Palatine, discusses the shooting at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee Sunday.

       Balwant Singh Hansra, a member of the Gurudawara Sikh Religious Society in Palatine, discusses the shooting at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee Sunday.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • Members of the Gurudawara Sikh Religious Society in Palatine sit in an office as they watch the news Sunday of the shooting at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee.

       Members of the Gurudawara Sikh Religious Society in Palatine sit in an office as they watch the news Sunday of the shooting at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • President Sukhdev K. Ghuman and other members of the Gurudawara Sikh Religious Society in Palatine watch news of the shooting at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee Sunday.

       President Sukhdev K. Ghuman and other members of the Gurudawara Sikh Religious Society in Palatine watch news of the shooting at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee Sunday.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

 
 

Hours after Sunday services and activities had ended, the leadership of the Sikh Religious Society Temple in Palatine stayed behind to mull some difficult decisions about security.

Frustrated with the lack of information about the identifies of the victims they may know, they turned off the continuous news coverage, passed out warm tea and discussed how to react to the Sunday morning shootings at a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee.

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"We do not close our doors, because we are a religion open for everybody," past President Balwant Singh Hansra said. "Like the U.S. can't close its borders, we don't lock our doors. We do not do that. That's not a part of our faith. So this is worrisome."

Concerned the tragedy to the north might not be isolated, worshippers at the Sikh Religious Society temple, the religious home to about 5,000 people, reached out to Palatine police, which assigned an officer to keep an eye on the facility.

Wheaton police also are providing extra security at the Illinois Sikh Community Center in Wheaton.

"I just asked them to keep an extra eye on things until we know more. And until services are done," priest Mohinder Singh said. "People don't know what to do. The community's still in shock."

Singh is one of many suburban Sikhs reacting with disbelief and sadness over the shootings, which claimed the lives of at least six people at the temple, also known as a gurdwara. The gunman also was killed.

Suburban Sikhs say it's hard not to be fearful of the "it can happen anywhere" reality of our times.

"People go to (the gurdwara) to seek peace and to meditate and to feel good about it. And when something like that happens, it instills fear in you, that you can go to God's house and it can happen there. It shatters people," said Rajinder Singh Mago of the Palatine temple.

Sukhdev K. Ghuman, the current Sikh Religious Society president, said the board plans to hold an emergency meeting to consider a proposal authorizing the temple to search any visitor deemed suspicious.

She said the temple also would make a point to generally keep its doors locked and take control of its community kitchen where food, or langar, is prepared and shared.

"This is not how we want it to be, but we want safety," Ghuman said. "Our kids are worried."

The shootings frightened the 9-year-old grandson of Elmhurst resident Onkar Singh Sangha. The boy called him Sunday morning and said, "Are you there?"

"I said, 'No, I'm not. I'm here.' He had heard it on the news," said Sangha, who's supposed to attend a wedding at the shooting site this Saturday.

"We're all connected because we have friends and family who know people there," added Sangha, president of the Federation of Indian Associations. "You can't imagine someone would do something like this in a place of worship."

Mago said he's been to the temple in suburban Milwaukee several times, and it's relatively new gurdwara and smaller than the one in Palatine.

While the motive for Sunday's shooting remains unknown, Mago said he hopes it's not a hate crime. Hate crimes against Sikhs increased following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks because they wear turbans as articles of faith, and people confuse them with extremist Muslims.

The only problem the Palatine temple experienced, Hansra said, was shortly after its construction in 1979. Tensions were high due to the Iranian hostage crisis, and Hansra said someone destroyed more than $32,000 worth of windows.

Mago questioned whether the Palatine gurdwara might have to consider doing training drills in the event of such an emergency in the future.

"This kind of crazy thing could happen anyplace, in a movie theater, in a shopping center, in a school ... and you cannot stop living because things like that happen," Mago said.

Dr. Pavitar Singh, president of the Illinois Sikh Community Center in Wheaton, said they prayed about the Colorado theater shootings recently, and the first thing his temple did after hearing about Sunday's tragedy was go straight into prayer.

"It's hard to make sense of this," said Singh, of Naperville. "When you see an incident like this, the first thing (you ask is), 'Is this racially motivated?' And, 'What national issue is this tied to?' After 9/11, everything that has ever happened to our community has either happened because of Ayatollah Khomeini during the late 1970s or a Palestine issue or during the Persian Gulf War, where our children have faced identity issues and we have had some either hate crimes or challenges given to us.

"We believe very firmly that these kind of tragedies only strengthen us, because we realize that these are random," he said. "We're saddened as Americans. We're all relating this to also the Colorado incident. I think the biggest thing that we're asking for is for everyone to pray for the victims and, more importantly, that we can avoid these kind of situations in the future. It is only through making this country better and being better citizens that we can actually go ahead and do that."

• Daily Herald staff writer Steve Zalusky contributed to this report

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