US Administration Stands in Solidarity with Sikh Community

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August 16, 2012

Candlelight Vigil Draws Scores of People to Nation’s Capital

By Geeta Goindi

WASHINGTON – Acknowledging the immense importance the Obama administration attaches to building relations with the Sikh community, a key liaison at the White House has expressed the US government’s solidarity with all Americans who stand united against the senseless shootings at the Gurudwara in Wisconsin.

August 16, 2012

Candlelight Vigil Draws Scores of People to Nation’s Capital

By Geeta Goindi

WASHINGTON – Acknowledging the immense importance the Obama administration attaches to building relations with the Sikh community, a key liaison at the White House has expressed the US government’s solidarity with all Americans who stand united against the senseless shootings at the Gurudwara in Wisconsin.

A scene at the Candlelight Vigil, held Sunday outside the White House, remembering the victims of the shootings at the Wisconsin Sikh Gurudwara

This Sunday evening saw scores of deeply concerned citizens showing up outside the president’s official residence for the second Candlelight Vigil in a week, honoring the victims of the horrific hate crime in Oak Creek, a city in Milwaukee County hitherto unknown to many.

To this gathering, Paul Monteiro, Associate Director at the White House Office of Public Engagement, said: “You saw the President speak out on several occasions over the past week, as recently as Friday evening, when he said an attack on any American of faith is an attack on all of us.  And so, whatever our religious backgrounds, I simply wanted to come out here and say on behalf of an administration that has worked since day one to build a relationship with the Sikh community, recognizing we see you as Americans first before anything else, that we stand with you in the good times and the bad times.  We mourn with you and honor the leadership that young people and all of you have shown in coming together to say, we stand united against the violence that took so many lives last Sunday”.

Paul Monteiro, Associate Director at the White House Office of Public Engagement (left), conveying the Obama administration’s message of standing in solidarity with the Sikh community in the wake of the tragic shootings in Wisconsin

In what has been acknowledged by the US administration as a hate crime, a lone gunman Wade Michael Page went on a shooting spree at the Sikh temple killing six innocent souls: Satwant Singh Kaleka, 65, the temple president who tried to protect others at the cost of his own life; Ranjit Singh, 49, and his 41-year-old brother Sita Singh,, both priests with families in India; Suveg Singh Khattra, 84, a former farmer and regular Gurudwara goer; Prakash Singh, 39, a priest; and Paramjit Kaur, 41, who worked 66 hours a week to provide for her family.  Three others remain in critical condition, including the heroic police officer Brian Murphy.

It is a tragedy which has shocked the nation!  The candlelight vigil in Washington, led by young activists Simerdeep Nijjer and Amandeep Patar, was one of many held across the country in the wake of the heinous hate crime in Wisconsin.

Monteiro, President Obama’s religious liaison noted, “In a week, when we saw the worst of the human spirit (Wade Michael Page) in a violent and senseless act in Oak Creek, we also saw some of the best of the human spirit in the diversity of faiths that have come together and said that we reject anyone who would target anyone because of their beliefs or the color of their skin or their last name or what they look like”.

At a Candlelight Vigil honoring victims of the Wisconsin Sikh Gurudwara shootings, in Lafayette Square Park, across from the White House, are seen from left to right: Virginia State Senator Dick Black (District 13); Virginia Delegate David Ramadan (Republican-South Riding); and George Allen, former Governor of Virginia

Recognizing “what happened in Wisconsin is a terrible tragedy”, George Allen, former Governor of Virginia, was passionate about denouncing the hate crime.  “My wife and I and all Americans deplore those despicable acts, attacking that temple, that house of worship where good people, where peaceful people were worshiping as they have the right to do”, he said, at the vigil.

He was equally vocal in stressing, “The first freedom of America is the freedom of religion”.  Allen told the gathering: “One of the things that we learn from history is that whenever there is discrimination on account of religion or race, ethnicity or gender, it is important for leaders to stand up and condemn it.  If leaders stay silent, then people think that might be acceptable.  We are all in solidarity.  America stands together shoulder-to-shoulder, tears on our face, regardless of one’s religious beliefs.  We all stand together to condemn anyone in this country who would ever dare to diminish the opportunities of every American to live up to their God-given rights to freedom of worship”.

Clearly touched by the sight of all the children sprawled on the lawn, he said, “I look at the young people in front of us.  We want them to have opportunities in life that are better than ours.  We would hate to see any young people lead their lives in fear”.

Allen, who has visited India, noted that “the oldest (US) and largest (India) democracies in the world, share the same values.  We need to make sure that our partnership is strong”, he said.

While acknowledging that “America is growing closer and closer to India”, Virginia State Senator Dick Black, who represents the 13th District including Loudoun and Prince William counties, said, “it is such a tragic blip on the screen that here we are, at a time when our nations, the two greatest democracies on earth, are growing closer and closer together in terms of our trade, our foreign relations, our cultural relations, and all of a sudden some lunatic comes out of left field and does something bizarre”.  Still, the Senator was optimistic.  “I think it is important to recognize that this will not derail our progress in any respect”, he stressed.

A Vietnam veteran, Black admitted, “I have always held a deep respect for the Sikhs” who held an elite status under the British Empire, he noted, to much applause from the gathering.

Like Allen, he believed the shootings were “a very sad thing because there is nothing that is more to the essence of freedom in America than freedom of religion.  We will do everything in our power to protect your freedom to worship freely”, he assured the Sikh community.

Virginia Delegate David Ramadan (Republican-South Riding), who happened to be in Delhi on a business trip at the time of the shootings, was also strong on assurances.  “The Virginia House of Delegates and the Virginia leadership supports the Sikh Indian American community”, he declared.  Ramadan believed that at a time like this, it’s incumbent “on us, immigrants from all walks of life, to stand together as Americans”.

Dr. Rajan Natarajan, Deputy Secretary of State for Policy and External Affairs, Maryland, conveyed “deepest sympathy and profound condolences” to the victims and their families.  Drawing attention to two senseless acts of violence which happened in quick succession – the shootings at the movie theater in Aurora and the Gurudwara in Oak Creek – Dr. Natarajan affirmed, “Our faith gives us the conviction not to be dragged down by these evil actions”.

Puneet Ahluwalia, Vice Chairman of Budget and Finance, Fairfax County Republican Committee, told the gathering, “Ever since this incident happened, I reached out to the leadership of Virginia and everyone was supportive”.  He read a statement from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who was in Colorado at the time of the vigil, which recognized “the Sikhs are peaceful people, people who believe in the equality of humankind, universal brotherhood of mankind and one supreme God”.

A cross-section of the large gathering outside the White House, on Sunday, at a Candlelight Vigil honoring the victims of the shootings at the Oak Creek Gurudwara

Regarding the loss of such precious lives in Oak Creek, Dr. Rajwant Singh, Chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education (SCORE), was vocal in stressing, “It is not a Sikh tragedy; it is an American tragedy”.  Recalling his trip to Wisconsin, on Thursday, when he visited the home of Satwant Singh Kaleka and met with his family members, Dr. Singh was full of admiration for the “dignified” manner in which they are leading the community there.  “Satwant Singh Kaleka died protecting other people”, he pointed out.  “He is an American hero because he protected the lives of other Americans”.

Dr. Singh told the gathering, “I protested when the media called it an act of ‘domestic terrorism’.  It is a hate crime”, he underscored.  The gunman “was not killing because we had done something wrong to his community or his people.  He killed people thinking they are enemies of America”.

Dr. Singh profoundly thanked all Americans for visiting Gurudwaras across the US, in the days following the tragedy, and called for an ‘open house’ on Sunday, August 19.  Sikhs treat everyone, of all faiths, who enters the Gurudwara with love and respect “because they are not others, they are us”, he said.

Children at the Candlelight Vigil outside the White House

After each speech, the crowd at the vigil chanted the Sikh slogan, ‘Bole So Nihal’ (a call to duty), followed by ‘Sat Sri Akal’ (God is eternal) which means all victory belongs to God.

Sikhs rendering a touching shabad, ‘Tera Kiya Mitha Lage’, about reconciliation and acceptance, at a Candlelight Vigil outside the White House honoring the innocent souls of the Wisconsin Gurudwara shootings

About the vigil, Simerdeep made it clear the intention was to send a strong message “to those that will choose to hate others based on the color of their skin, their appearance or the faith they choose to follow” that “we hold steadfast in the practice of our faith.  We will meet your hatred with love.  We will prevail where you will fail”, she said.  “We firmly believe that no place of worship should ever witness the violence, the bloodshed that occurred in Oak Creek, Wisconsin”.