NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sikh communities across the United States called for vigilance and better public understanding of their religion on Monday after six people were shot dead at a temple in Wisconsin.
Police deployed extra security at Sikh places of worship.
“Nobody knows what to do, but just be alert,” said Jaswant Singh Shaad, 43, a member of California’s Stockton Sikh Temple, the oldest Sikh temple in the United States and home to between 5,000 to 7,000 members.
The Stockton temple, like others across the country, is in talks with local police about more security, fearing a repeat of Sunday’s shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin as worshipers prepared a meal for religious services.
Authorities have identified the shooter as Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old U.S. Army veteran with links to racist groups. He was shot and killed by police.
“All Sikh are shocked ... it can happen (in Wisconsin), it can happen anywhere. We are shocked and scared,” Shaad said, noting that leaders had been appealing on local Punjabi radio for people to remain calm but vigilant.
In the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas, Sikh temples were being urged to seek security assessments from local police and have members of their congregations trained in crisis management.
Police had also increased patrols of the area’s five gurdwaras (places of worship), which have about 10,000 members, said Gurvinder Singh, director of United Sikhs.
In New York City, police had deployed Critical Response Vehicles, usually reserved for counter-terrorism patrols, to Sikh temples in the city until further notice.
“No matter who you are, no matter where you’re from, no matter what religion you profess you have a right to be safe in your homes, in your places of worship and on the streets of New York City,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters, standing outside of the Sikh Cultural Society in New York.
A number of members of Sikh communities said they saw the shooting as an isolated incident, but many also said they were concerned about what they described as troubling discrimination in the United States against followers of the Sikh religion, who are often mistaken as Muslim.
“Since 9/11, Sikhs have faced countless hate crimes, been denied employment, bullied in schools and profiled in airports simply because of the way we look,” said Prabhjot Singh, a co-founder of the New York- based Sikh Coalition.
Sikhism, the fifth-largest organized religion in the world, hails from the area of Punjab, in between Pakistan and India. As testament of their faith, Sikh men often keep their beards long and wear turbans to cover their uncut hair. There are an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 Sikhs in the United States.
Organizations working for better public awareness of the Sikh community said they hoped the shooting could be an opportunity to educate the American public about Sikhism, which they say stresses peace.
“We as a nation can use this as a teachable moment,” Singh said, explaining that temples across the country would hold open houses, fundraising efforts and vigils with inter-faith and other community groups.
Vigils were planned all week in Dallas, New York and Chicago, organizers said.
In New York City, Sikhs for Justice pledged $10,000 to an injured police officer who was shot eight or nine times by Page when he was tending to a victim.
Editing by Paul Thomasch and Anthony Boadle